Wikipedia: friend, not foe

September 11, 2009 — by Anoop Galivanche and Jason Wu

It is one of the greatest academic ironies that one of the most popular sources of information today is also one of the most controversial. Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that contains 13 million articles in 200 languages, has been criticized by scholars who believe that the website’s open editing system makes it unreliable and inaccurate. However, Wikipedia’s popularity remains undiminished. It is the 7th most visited website on the web.

The mechanism of public editing that many perceive to be a detriment to Wikipedia’s authenticity is actually its greatest strength. The core principle of Wikipedia’s editing process is that a large number of well-intentioned, competent users will be able to offset the effects of a small number of ill-intentioned vandals. This concept has been largely successful—the average revert time for an inaccuracy is 12 hours. In contrast, an error in a textbook can take years to correct.

This isn’t to say that the public editing element of Wikipedia cannot be exploited, but that it gives Wikipedia a great advantage in ensuring the highest level of accuracy in all its articles. In addition, prudent judgment and fact validation are imperative in accepting statements put forth in it, or in any publication, as truths.

The unique role that Wikipedia plays in student research has long misunderstood by teachers and scholars. In the beginning stages of research, students are aware that they need to consult a variety of sources to gain a comprehensive understanding of a new topic but simply do not know where to begin.

For this purpose, a specialized source such as the greatly advocated Gale database is essentially useless because it requires the student to have background knowledge in a subject for it to be used effectively. Wikipedia provides this beginning knowledge and allows students to then use other, more specific sources.

In an e-mail circulated to teachers by librarian Kevin Heyman, the utility of Wikipedia is clarified by UCSB English professor Alan Liu. Dr. Liu explains that Wikipedia, as with any other encyclopedia, should not be used as a student’s only source. The majority of what he says is true, but the antiquated bibliography of Wikipedia scandals that he suggests reading is largely misleading.

Like most community-oriented presences on the Internet, Wikipedia is constantly evolving. Measures such as the recent reform requiring a reliable editor to sign off on all edits regarding living people are constantly being put in place to improve the reliability of articles. As such, many of the incidents Dr. Liu describes are no longer applicable to the current incarnation of Wikipedia.

Teachers should begin to accept that Wikipedia has evolved into a valuable, reliable resource for students and incorporate it accordingly as part of the taught research process.

Wikipedia was used to substantiate the claims made in this article.

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