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In Defense of Wikipedia

Wikipedia LogoThe other day talking to my daughter, she asked me about something I didn't know the answer to. So, I told her I was going to look it up on Wikipedia. She instantly told me I shouldn't do that, because you can't trust Wikipedia. Her teachers had told her so. So, after a little back and forth, I told her I'd give her some information she could take to her teachers to show them that Wikipedia wasn't so bad. What I wrote was largely recycling of a comment I left in the entry, Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?, but cleaned up a bit. I figured that I'd repost that cleaned up version here in its own entry.

Wikipedia, for anyone unfamiliar with it, is an online encyclopedia. Its unique characteristic is that it’s open to be edited by anybody. This open policy certainly raises suspicions about its quality. However, in practice, it ends up being fairly reliable.

There was a study conducted by Nature in 2005, comparing Wikipedia to Encyclopædia Britannica Online. While Wikipedia was a little less accurate, it wasn't even by an order of magnitude. You have to have a subscription to Nature or pay $32 to read the original article, but cnet has a summary. Nature chose several topics at random, and asked experts to review the Britannica and Nature articles on those topics. Here's how cnet summarized the findings.

In the end, the journal found just eight serious errors, such as general misunderstandings of vital concepts, in the articles. Of those, four came from each site. They did, however, discover a series of factual errors, omissions or misleading statements. All told, Wikipedia had 162 such problems, while Britannica had 123.

That averages out to 2.92 mistakes per article for Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia.

Not surprisingly, considering that Britannica makes money by selling encyclopedias, they contested the study. Nature, for its part, has responded to Britannica's criticisms. You can read Britannica's criticisms and Nature's response by going to Nature's page for the article (unlike the original article, those portions are free).

One common complaint I’ve heard regarding Wikipedia is the problem of referencing it as a source when it's constantly changing. In fact, you can reference static versions of pages that will never change. You simply go to the ‘Toolbox’ section in the left hand column of an article, and choose ‘Permanent Link’. This allows one to see exactly what version of a page someone was using as a source. Here’s an example:

Wikipedia is also much better about referencing and citations than it was in its early days. You can scroll to the bottom of an article and go to the original sources yourself, if so inclined. If you're planning on doing in depth analysis of a topic, Wikipedia can be a good starting point for this reason.

Wikipedia does share one problem with information sources in general – they all contain mistakes. There's no simple way to get 100% accurate information. It's up to every individual to evaluate information from any given source, and compare it to other sources. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I like Wikipedia. Conventional print encyclopedias have a hidden editorial process. Wikipedia puts it out there in the open, making it easier to evaluate information on the more controversial topics.

In my own personal experience, I've found Wikipedia to be pretty reliable, especially on non-controversial or apolitical topics. The revision history and links to sources make it easier to evaluate the reliability of the content. Wikipedia is usually the first place I go to when researching a topic I’m not already familiar with.

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