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In Defense of Wikipedia
Copyright 2008 - Megan Conn
So you're assigned a report on [insert something you know nothing about], say, the origins of the radio. What do you do first? If you're like many people, your first step might be to search "radio" in Wikipedia or Google (where the first result is the Wikipedia entry anyway). In the Wikipedia entry (also known as a "wiki"), you'll find a detailed, illustrated article that covers the etymology, history, uses, and electromagnetic spectrum of radio, complete with references, further reading, and external links. To many people, this combination of general information and helpful links may seem like the ideal first source in a research project, but few teachers at Castilleja and other middle and high schools will accept Wikipedia as a trustworthy source. However, Wikipedia is a valuable resource that should be considered worthy of citation, rather than being categorically dismissed.
My support for Wikipedia developed beyond simple appreciation for its helpful articles on a wide range of subjects this summer while interning at CK12, a nonprofit company in Palo Alto that is creating a tool for users to build and customize their own high quality, free online "flexbooks" available in various formats, including wikis. While these books originate with seeded content (more on that later), their benefits are similar to those of Wikipedia – they are free, easily accessible, and can be constantly updated by the user. In addition to working closely with the wiki format of editing and presenting information, we had the good fortune to meet with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, and hear from him about Wikipedia’s development.
Wikipedia began as an offshoot of Nupedia, Wales’s first attempt at creating a free online encyclopedia. Unlike Wikipedia, Nupedia was built on seeded content; that is, experts in various fields volunteered to create the Nupedia articles. The articles then underwent a rigorous system of peer review and copy editing before they could be published. Though the process ensured high quality content, the intensely involved and painstakingly slow process resulted in Nupedia publishing only twenty-four articles in its three and a half year lifespan. In contrast, after less then eight years, the English language Wikipedia has 2,635,766 articles and now attracts more than 684 visitors annually. In all, Wikipedia has over 10 million articles written by 75,000+ contributors in more than 250 languages. Even without these statistics, it is clear the Wikipedia has had far greater influence than a small-scale, tightly controlled project like Nupedia ever could.
The fact that articles on Wikipedia are created, developed and edited by thousands of users around the world is clearly its greatest strength in terms of range and variety, but is also its greatest weakness because it opens to the door to the main argument against it: that it’s simply not accurate. To address this question, various groups performed studies aimed at quantitatively define Wikipedia’s accuracy relative to other sources. In an analysis for The Journal of American History, Roy Rosenzweig, director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, found that Wikipedia was equally or more accurate than traditional encyclopedias in many articles; for example, the biographical entries were generally well done, while articles on more general themes could be less accurate. Another such study was done by the well-respected science journal Nature, which had field experts review side-by-side articles on a variety of science topics, one from Wikipedia and one from Encyclopedia Britannica. They found that serious errors were split evenly between the two sources, although Wikipedia had slightly more minor errors. On average, they found 2.92 mistakes per Britannica article and 3.86 for Wikipedia, or about a third more. Nature concluded that high profile errors on Wikipedia were “the exception rather than the rule.” Wales responded, “I was very pleased, just to see that (the study) was reasonably favorable… it puts the focus on the broader quality and not just one article." He did note that the error rate for each source was significant and suggested the need for increased review. The study also reminds all researchers that no source is an absolute, infallible authority – errors are everywhere.
And one of Wikipedia’s major benefits is that such errors, once identified, can be easily and immediately corrected by any user, in contrast to the lengthy, expensive, and wasteful process required to edit and reprint paper encyclopedias. Wikipedia can also be instantly updated with recent developments and newly discovered information. In addition, Wikipedia is accessible, convenient, easy to use, and free. Its format is another of its strong points; Wikipedia articles are clearly organized with a table of contents as well as heading and subheadings. Wikipedia also provides hyperlinks to other relevant articles, embedded directly into the text. These links, combined with the references, external links, and further reading, enable the reader to learn about related topics in a single click.
In all, Wikipedia has proven to be an innovative tool for sharing information that should be considered a viable source in many settings. While it should by no means be the only source of information, it should be accepted when used in conjunction with other sources that support its information. And in the cases where Wikipedia is inappropriate, such as in college-level writing, most educators already agree that students should have moved beyond citing any kind of encyclopedia to using primary sources. It’s time to stop using Wikipedia as a first source and then hunting around for the same information elsewhere so you can cite it. And if, heaven forbid, you find an error in Wikipedia, take the initiative to correct it! The solution to the "Wikipedia problem" is not to exclude its vast stores of knowledge from academic work, but to increase the number of contributors to improve its quality and deepen its breadth. Wikipedia should be saluted for its noble goal and considerable progress towards making information available to everyone. As Jimmy Wales puts it, "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing.”