As university students, we all know that our university professors won’t like it if we were to cite Wikipedia links in our term papers, but is Wikipedia really that unreliable?
As Stephen Colbert, an American political satirist and comedian, puts it, there is now a “Wikiality” (watch the video here) – a reality that we create for ourselves based on what the majority agree it to be. To put it in his words, it is the concept that “together we can create a reality that we all agree on- the reality we just agreed on.”
After writing my previous post about placing advertisements in Wikipedia, I got interested in finding out more about the site’s credibility. After doing some research, I found out that Wikipedia may not be as unreliable as it seems…
One-stop shop for facts
In every Wikipedia page, there is the “Article” tab that provides unbiased information and facts about a topic. It strives to keep a neutral point of view in its articles, and reserves all the debate and controversy under the “Discussion” tab instead. In the Discussion page, there is lively debate about the topic and authors leave notes about the changes they make.
Wikipedia’s content evolves over time, as different contributors edit and update the information. Although there is no formal review process (as in the case of publishing scholarly articles), these anonymous authors keep each other in check, and try to present content accurately through repeated cross-checking. The authors of these articles could be an expert in that field, or could very well be your next-door neighbor! This seems like a threat to the accuracy and validity of the articles, but the fact that so many people can cross-check the information and update it with the newest data overrides this disadvantage. It also works as a platform to equalize the opportunity for all people to share what they know.
One good example is the Wikipedia article on the recent Sendai earthquake and tsunami in Japan. In the 100 hours after the quake, 1,727 people made 6,931 edits to 49 relevant articles. The information on the articles have all been checked and re-checked, which increases its credibility.
Other than the “Article” and “Discussion” tab, there is also the “History” tab, which tracks every change made in the article page. However, we may not be able to identify the authors who made the changes.
Still questioning its reliability? One study showed that Britannica, the established British encyclopedia, is only slightly more reliable than Wikipedia. Britannica had, on average, 3 errors per entry while Wikipedia had 4.
Wikipedia is not without its fair share of hoaxes and scandals though. One famous example in 2009 was when a Dublin University student Shane Fitzgerald wrote a fabricated quote into a Wikipedia article about the famous composer Maurice Jarre, who had recently passed away. It went “One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear.” Many newspapers published this quote, and it was only when Fitzgerald himself exposed the hoax one month later, did people realize it was all fluff.
It may not be that bad, after all
After all that is said, I think that Wikipedia is still very effective for basic background information about a certain topic. As this article argues, “a low-profile page that few people have edited is unreliable”. The fact that so many people edit and cross check the information actually increases its reliability rather than decreases it.
Traditional academic papers are still much more viable sources of information, but Wikipedia acts as a good jumping off point for further research. From the Wikipedia page, you can always click on the reference sites listed at the bottom of the page for further reading up and research. So go ahead and use Wikipedia to acquire some random facts and knowledge, but for official purposes, always back your arguments with further research from other sources so as not to succumb to “Wikiality”.