Wikipedia: Uncredible Source, Invaluable Resource

Wikipedia is a prominent research wiki, with over 40 million articles in 293 languages.

Samuel Reich, Rookie Reporter

You may have been warned by your English teacher that you can’t cite Wikipedia.

If you’re anything like me, this probably caused no little grumbling on your part. After all, it’s an amazing resource, with millions of extensive articles on a host of subjects, all of them easily accessible on the web at any time without a subscription or account required―and better yet, it’s free. What would make this quick and easy reference, written in such a formal, professional way, be any less reliable than your average encyclopedia or academic article?

The answer to this is also the reason Wikipedia is so extensive: it is based on a public, anonymous authorship and editing system. This means that anyone can create an account and write or edit Wikipedia articles without proving their education, credibility, or background knowledge, and don’t even need to provide their name or personal information to contribute. And more drastic yet: they don’t have to pass their articles through any type of editing system prior to publishing them. Unlike any encyclopedia, research paper, or academic journal, Wikipedia articles are not peer reviewed, edited by a university professor, or okayed by an editor or editorial board. People are free to publish articles without having them checked by anyone beforehand.

This has led to false and misleading information being published, something that considerably lowers the wiki’s credibility. Articles with strong biases and untruths have famously been published and not corrected for months on end. Even though this is very uncommon, it has happened, and because it is a possibility, Wikipedia cannot be trusted as a valid academic source.

Despite this, it is obvious to anyone at all familiar with Wikipedia that one will not find glaring untruths in any random article they pull up. There are several factors which help keep author’s bias and misinformation from being published within Wikipedia.

The first is that citations are requisite for all articles. This means that for any claim that an author makes, they need to support it with another source. The reliability of the sources is another question; but as they can usually be checked fairly easily by any Wikipedia reader, it does not require much digging to tell if someone is stretching the truth. This is very helpful in keeping authors accountable for giving accurate information and keeping Wikipedia generally free from falsehood.

The second, more importantly, is that even though a public authorship and editing system means that authors with agendas can write whatever they want, this can also be quickly corrected by people with nobler purposes in mind. Wikipedia has over 32 million registered users, and nearly that number again of unregistered ones. That there are this many people with Wikipedia accounts means that there is very little chance of blatant misinformation, or even subtle falsehoods, staying on any Wikipedia page for long. There are also ways that articles exposed to repeated additions of false information can be blocked from public editing if this comes to the attention of the higher-ups in Wikipedia’s bureaucracy.

Although academia has rejected it as a reliable source, Wikipedia does have some very good uses. First, it is a very fast, fairly reliable fact-check. If you’re wondering about the author of a book, the identification of an animal, or the year of a historical event, Wikipedia is a good place to look. The average Wikipedian does not have any intentions of influencing public opinion on controversial subjects or inserting blatantly false information into articles. If it’s not for a formal academic project, I would say that for the most part, Wikipedia can be relied on for basic factual information.

Second, Wikipedia is a fantastic starting-point for research. Although there is the possibility of controversial statements existing to a limited extent, it provides a strong, broad description of a host of subjects, and generally does a good job of keeping bias out of the issue and presenting multiple viewpoints. Wikipedia is a great place to gather background information for doing research; its articles tend to be fairly well organized, allowing researchers to skip around to relevant information. The sources cited at the bottom of every Wikipedia article are also amazing resources for more in-depth research.

An important question remains: why would someone open Wikipedia to the public and risk blows to its credibility, when they could keep a stronger rein on what is written and therefore establish it as a reliable source?

The answer to this is that it was already tried, and it failed. Before creating Wikipedia, its founder, Jimmy Wales, collaborated with Larry Sanger in 2000 to create a for-profit online encyclopedia called Nupedia, which they designed to be a robust, academically credible source by running contributing authors’ articles through a seven-step review process before publishing. Although the articles they published certainly were academically valid, Nupedia’s system simply didn’t work; in the first year, only around 20 articles were actually published, with up to 150 drafts still struggling to get through the editing process.

Wikipedia was created in 2001 to give Nupedia a leg up, but, as it exponentially increased in popularity, it eventually surpassed Nupedia and led to its end. Small wonder–as opposed to the measly 20 articles that Nupedia had achieved in its first year, by 2002, Wikipedia’s number was nearer to 20 thousand. By 2006, Wikipedia had a million articles, and today, it has over 5 million in English, and in total, over 40 million in 293 languages. This is the effect that a public authorship system and a no-prior editing policy has, compared to rules being in place.

Wales made the decision to allow an anonymous authorship, no-editing system and risk vandalism, misinformation, and bias, so that Wikipedia could be the all-encompassing, robust wiki that it is today. Is the loss of its validity as a source a worthy price to pay for having as large of a range of articles as it does now? I think that it is. Even though it certainly is unfortunate not to be able to cite Wikipedia’s articles, I believe that it is far more rewarding to have a huge number of different articles covering thousands of topics, than to have a very small number of academically reliable ones. As can be seen from the long list of sources at the bottom of every Wikipedia article, there is already plenty of citable material out there. What is lacking is something that summarizes the findings of all of these other sources and presents them in a succinct, introductory, understandable form, notwithstanding its academic validity. This role, Wikipedia plays perfectly.