Monday, December 9, 2013

In Defense of Wikipedia

I recently got this email from a coworker:
Can we visit about wikipedia?  I hear it's peer reviewed and not able to be edited by just anyone.  What's the truth?  Many teachers won't allow it as a solid reference in research.  What do you think?
This is a sentiment I've heard all too frequently. It's true that Wikipedia is peer reviewed, can be edited by anyone, and has contained erroneous information at times. But I think it's a great resources for finding accurate information on a variety of subjects. I decided to do a little digging to see how trustworthy it can be. All of my information came directly from Wikipedia's own FAQ pages, so I guess that should be taken with a grain of salt.

One of the concerns, as raised in the email above, is that anybody can edit a wiki article. Wikipedia is entirely free - anybody can create an account and edit information on any page. However, I believe that helps ensure the accuracy of wiki pages instead of making them unreliable. Most wiki pages are monitored by many, possibly hundreds, of other contributors. If someone with bad intentions were to add inaccurate or misleading information, the chances are great that someone else would catch the change and be able to edit it for more accuracy. Behind the scenes of each page are discussions and debates between all the contributors that the end user may not be seeing. Every change on a page is also logged in a page history, so anyone can see those changes and who made them. From the FAQ Is Wikipedia accurate and reliable? (emphasis mine):
It is possible for a given Wikipedia article to be biased, outdated, or factually incorrect. This is true of any resource. One should always double-check the accuracy of important facts, regardless of the source. In general, popular Wikipedia articles are more accurate than ones that receive little traffic, because they are read more often and therefore any errors are corrected in a more timely fashion.
The accuracy of any wiki article is dependent on the accuracy of the sources on which it relies. Information within any given Wikipedia article should be derived from authoritative sources. As you read wiki articles you'll notice footnotes that lead to the References section at the bottom of each page. If someone added factual information to an article without citing a source, you may see a "Citation needed" note.
Wikipedia reference section
Are the external sources reliable?
If the external sources cited are authoritative, then the overall wiki article should be accurate and reliable. This is also a great place for students to go for more information or additional sources.

Any source students use - newspaper, encyclopedia, book, or media - can have wrong or outdated information. Students need to be taught to look at any source critically and check it for accuracy. I read the local newspaper every day and I know that not everything I read is going to be accurate or contain all of the information I need. If I feel I'm missing something then I'll go online and check other news outlets as well. This fills in any information gaps and gives me a better picture.

We need to teach students the same thing with Wikipedia. It shouldn't be avoided or not allowed to be cited as a source. Instead it should be viewed as a clearinghouse of information, a compilation of many sources into one article. It shouldn't be the only source, but it can be a great starting point for research!

What do you think about Wikipedia? Let me know in the comments below.

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