Ever since Wikipedia’s inception in 2001, professors and academics alike have often doubted the accuracy of its numerous entries. Concordia communication studies librarian Sonia Poulin is part of that camp: “Wikipedia is not an academic source, nor an authoritative source (despite having references), and there is no organized editorial or academic oversight,” she said. “An article may have references, but present the information in a biased, unscientific way.” Like anything else though, it’s misguided to criticize something you don’t truly understand the inner workings of.
Some people completely discredit things without truly understanding how they’re built. For example, a professor of mine just last week told my class not to “watch CNN because it’s not real news.” The problem lies with people telling me where I can and cannot get information. After five years at university and a lot more at the university of life, I’m confident that I’ve been given the right tools to sniff out information that isn’t fit to print. They tell us we have to use reliable sources, but what exactly is a reliable source these days? Besides peer-reviewed journals, it’s really hard to say.
I would classify Harper’s, Rolling Stone and New Republic as highly reputable publications, but do you remember Stephen Glass? In 1998 he was fired after it was revealed he fabricated parts of dozens of stories for those magazines, all dealing with very important topics. Today, media outlets are duped by Twitter hoaxes all the time and have to admit they jumped the gun in an embarrassing fashion. The professor who told us to stay away from CNN surely knows that mainstream media is also vulnerable to inaccuracies.
Just how accurate is Wikipedia exactly? In 2005, a single-blind study published in the journal Nature, which compared 42 random scientific articles from Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica, concluded that the average Wikipedia article contained four errors, as opposed to three in the average Britannica article.
So besides being pretty accurate, how is Wikipedia built and is it truly disorganized with no academic oversight? The answer is no, it’s a lot more organized that you may think. There are currently 1,507 administrators (744 active) who “protect, delete and restore pages, move pages over redirects, hide and delete page revisions, edit protected pages, and block other editors.” They are chosen by way of a rigorous peer selection process and watch over the changes made by more than 16 million accounts (300,000 of which have made more than 10 edits). They are helped by a variety of “software assisted systems and automated programs,” one of which is called WikiScanner, to watch for problematic edits and editors. WikiScanner is a tool developed by the California Institute of Technology which “matches anonymous IP edits in the encyclopedia with an extensive database of addresses.” It has identified dubious edits made to entries by the CIA, Diebold Inc., the Australian government and others over the years.
“You can edit whatever you want in Wikipedia!,” many claim. Anyone who thinks this has clearly never tried editing anything on the site. This is the litmus test for someone who doesn’t understand how Wikipedia works. Editors are notified when the slightest changes are made to entries, and many mistakes are fixed almost instantly. In fact, “a 2007 peer-reviewed study stated that 42% of damage (i.e. vandalism) is repaired almost immediately.”
In 2009, continued vandalism prompted Wikipedia to implement a new feature called “Flagged Revisions.” Originally used as a pilot project on the German version of Wikipedia, users are required to be authenticated before being able to edit, and need to provide references. For certain entries, the changes “must be verified by an experienced volunteer before publication,” according to an article in PC World. Entries are placed in a holding queue until they are approved by someone Wikipedia considers a “trusted editor.” Furthermore, “systems administrators can block access to the site by certain users who have repeatedly been vandalizing entries.” Clearly, many measures are put into place to prevent vandalism and erroneous information from being posted.
That doesn’t mean, by any stretch, that Wikipedia entries are hermetically sealed and invulnerable to inaccuracies, because they aren’t. Out of more than 3.8 million English entries there will be mistakes. But it’s unfair to label it as a specious source for information.
With a growing number of newspapers, books and even libraries migrating to the web, why should we stay away from highly-structured, communal knowledge building websites such as Wikipedia? Everyone will agree that it’s a great tool; with more than 20 million articles in 280-some languages, it’s hard to argue against that statement. It can be highly useful for academic purposes, but provided that students have been taught the necessary critical thinking skills that will allow them to mine adequate and accurate information. That means checking references to see how trustworthy they are and remaining skeptical of single source entries.
Hyperlinking is where Wikipedia is truly powerful; it provides a fantastic springboard for research. “It can be a very valuable first source – but I repeat – only as a first source. Chances are, if the article is solid, you’ll be able to find a second or even a third source corroborating the info,” says Alex Panetta, news editor for the Canadian Press in Montreal. Concordia journalism professor Leo Gervais agrees. “We should teach and encourage the students to use other sources and show their benefits, but to dismiss Wikipedia out of hand would be folly in my view.”
Ultimately, universities strive to prepare their students for the ‘real’ world by teaching them to filter, analyze, evaluate and compile information properly. The information itself is quasi-irrelevant. Nowadays, professors need to re-evaluate their approaches to defining “reliable sources” and put more trust in their students. Research has always been about getting various sources on a topic and Wikipedia is a great place to start, so don’t be so quick to dismiss it; it may be free, but it’s a labor of love for thousands of well-informed people who mean well.