Why Wikipedia?

In my articles, I have included links to Wikipedia for most of the topics for which I want to provide additional information. Yet, in recent years there have been several instances when Wikipedia has been criticized as an unreliable source of information. As a trained scholar, have I betrayed my own educational standards? Am I breaking faith with my readers, directing them to an untrustworthy site?

No, I do not believe that I am. And the reasons are …

Wikipedia, "The Free Encyclopedia," was created in 2001, as a collaborative online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute. As of this writing, Wikipedia comprises more than ten million articles, over two and a half million of which are in English, covering a huge range of subjects. It is now a well-known, easily-accessible online source for all kinds of information. And best of all, it is free.

The most common negative accusations against Wikipedia are that articles are inaccurate, they contain unsubstantiated information, and worst of all, that articles can be "vandalized" by malicious persons. Those who disapprove of the Wikipedia concept claim that this open-source, unmeditated site is untrustworthy. But I have seen that such a blanket statement cannot be applied to all the articles which one finds at Wikipedia.

It is true that Wikipedia does not have the same type of traditional editorial controls which are in place for a respected publication like the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Encyclopedia Britannica is indeed an authoritative trusted source of reliable information provided by experts in their field. All the articles are verified by an expert panel of editors before they are included in the Encyclopedia. But there is a price to be paid to gain access to the scholarly toil of all these experts. One must purchase the printed volumes of the Encyclopedia, or pay the subscription fee for the full online version. Online one can view a paragraph or two of each entry without charge, but to view the full article, a subscription fee must be paid. A less expensive, but rather inconvenient method of access to the full information is to visit one’s local library.

Not all seekers of knowledge can afford a subscription to such online knowledge repositories as the Encyclopedia Britannica, particularly those who are not professional scholars. But everyone with Internet access can take advantage of the great storehouse of information which has been accumulating at Wikipedia since 2001. Since the more egregious episodes of article vandalism, Wikipedia more closely monitors new postings. This is possible because of the large number of committed members around the world, providing collective scrutiny of articles by many knowledgeable eyes. In addition, Wikipedia software also easily allows their editors to quickly rollback any article which has been vandalized to a previous, more accurate version.

The same self-policing policy at Wikipedia which reverses vandalism also ensures that the content of most articles is verified by multiple knowledgeable volunteers. This has the serendipitous effect of what might be described as cross-pollination of information. For example, a couple of years ago I edited an article on computer history in which it was stated that computer punch cards had their origins in the cards used to operate Jacquard looms. Which is perfectly true. But the author stated that these looms were used for sewing, as s/he was clearly a historian of technology, not textiles. Since textiles was an area of specialization for me as a graduate student, I knew that Jacquard looms were use for weaving cloth, not sewing it. So I edited that sentence to clarify the point. All readers of Wikipedia now benefit from the joint sharing of knowledge by a technology historian and a textile historian. This kind of thing happens all over the Wikipedia site all the time.

There are still occasionally problems with vandalism or inaccurate information in Wikipedia articles. But I have found that such problems typically happen with articles relating to celebrities and popular culture, as they seem to draw more traffic. There are also inaccuracies which sometimes appear in articles on computer technology, particularly software, but again, those articles often draw traffic from those who wish to make their mark, regardless of accuracy. But I have very seldom found instances of vandalism or egregious errors in articles on historical subjects. Things like birth and death dates and biographical highlights in the life of a historical figure are usually accurate. I have also found information on such topics as historical laws, politics, economics, and geography to be generally accurate.

Another important feature of Wikipedia, in my opinion, are the external links which are provided at the end of many articles. These links allow the Wikipedia visitor to pursue further information from other sources, giving them a plethora of options for further research beyond Wikipedia. In some cases, print books are also cited, providing a serious knowledge seeker with even more sources for satisfying their desire for knowledge on the subjects which interest them.

Overall, I find Wikipedia to be a fairly reliable source of historical information. It is for that reason that I typically include links to Wikipedia articles when I want to provide my readers with more information on subjects which are tangential to the main point of an article. I intend to continue to do so as I hope many readers, like me, will always want to know more about the many facets of the history of Regency England.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to Why Wikipedia?

  1. Buzzy says:

    There have been several studies comparing Wikipedia and Britannica for accuracy, all of which have found them comparable. This is the most well known:

    http://news.cnet.com/2100-1038_3-5997332.html

    I don’t let students cite Wikipedia in my classes, but only because encyclopedias are not considered scholarly sources at the university level. I do encourage them to use it as a starting point, to get ideas about topics and areas of research and for looking up term definitions for class readings. It is as legitimate as any other encyclopedia and infinitely easier to use.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Wikipedia will probably never be as accurate as more traditional, especially printed, encyclopedias because of the fact that it is an open, online source. But I have chosen to use it for most of my “additional information” links because it is readily accessible to everyone. In fact, many of the pages for historical topics which I cite are taken from a public domain version of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

      And, since I seldom cite pages on contemporary subjects, the pages to which I link are reasonably accurate and less often defaced, since those pages don’t get a lot of traffic. Hackers and defacers looking to make a splash will go after topic pages for issues in the news which they think are attracting a lot of visitors, to show off their prank to the widest audience.

      For many topics, Wikipedia provides external links, which are helpful to someone who wishes to pursue even more information on a particular subject. I have also found the material available a Wikipedia useful in helping me identify the most likely keywords and phrases for further online searching in a given subject.

      For new scholars, Wikipedia can also be a useful source of discussion about the veracity of reference materials. Does the information they find on Wikipedia reflect that which they have ferreted out from printed sources? If not, why? The collection of facts is not the sole purpose of scholarship. True scholars must also assess the source of the information they acquire and learn to weigh the relative merits of each source to determine its true value in their research. I think you are right to allow your students to use Wikipedia, but not to allow them to use it as a sole source, or to cite it in their work. But they should certainly be aware of it, and learn how to use it to help them refine their research efforts.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. Sarah Waldock says:

    I tend to use Wiki as a good starting point. I’ve caught it out a couple of times but on the whole it gives good information and at least enough to be able to research further online or otherwise. It’s a tool, and a very useful one and if nothing else gives a better search criterion to feed into JSTOR or that useful search animal, Amazon, to know what to order from the library….. or [hem!] read with the look inside tool

  3. Tychy says:

    A great, shrewd article and I think that you’re bang on the ball with this. There is far too much snobbery towards what is frequently a very reliable and helpful resource, and the most reliable resource to be available to everybody. Where I have possessed specialist knowledge of a subject, the Wikipedia entry has turned out to be not only as safe as houses in getting dates and facts right, but to offer the best introduction to the subject. It rather betrays the vested interests within contemporary scholarship and universities that Wikipedia was invented outside of the ivory tower.

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