Posts Tagged ‘wikipedia’

“Using Wikipedia? – You Fool!” (In Defense of Wikipedia)

May 19, 2012 14 comments

“You  quoted Wikipedia?  Hah! I can now dismiss everything you have to say. Wikipedia is not a reliable source silly person. Everyone knows that!”

Ever hear that one or something like it? I know I have. Not directed at me, but at others. And it always bothers me.

I agree one should never cite Wikipedia as an academic source or as direct evidence of a claim.  But that doesn’t mean one can just dismiss a point being made that links to Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an excellent explanatory resource; one of the best on the Internet. It is a great source of information, and for the most part reliable.

Some people seem to think that, because one should not “cite” Wikipedia as academic evidence for the validity of a claim, that Wikipedia is unreliable, should not be used, or should not be pointed to.

They misunderstand the difference between primary /secondary sources, and tertiary sources that point to primary and secondary sources. Tertiary sources condense or consolidate primary and secondary source material into one place.

All encyclopedias are the latter, tertiary sources (though some have elements of secondary sources). The point here is that NO encyclopedia should be used as an academic source or for absolute evidence of a claim.  On the other hand quoting an encyclopedia is fine if the information is pertinent and has explanatory power. No one would complain if they were asked to read something from Encyclopedia Britannica or some other encyclopedia.

This brings me to the validity of Wikipedia compared to other encyclopedias, and this is where I disagree with the person who dismisses Wikipedia off-hand.

Wikipedia themself say they are not a credible or authoritative source for a research paper citation, etc.  But again, this is simply because they are a tertiary source, which should only be a starting point for research.

The biggest factor that gets some people to automatically dismiss Wikipedia: It can be updated by anyone.  Anyone! Someone that is crazier than a loon wearing high heels on Sunday can update a Wikipedia article.

So let’s go over the ups and downs for this. It certainly has its downsides, but I would suggest the upsides override them. Take another encyclopedia for example. For such an encyclopedia, the information is gathered and put together by a group of people who work for the company (ie. Encyclopedia Britannica). It is researched, checked by a much smaller group than Wikipedia, and is just as susceptible to faulty information.

Wikipedia, however, is open to a much larger group of editors – the public. This includes people who are actual experts for any given Wikipedia article.  If some joker hops on and makes a false change in an article, it will quickly be looked at by others and fixed. In many cases an almost instantaneous process.

Per Wikipedia: “Every day, hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world collectively make tens of thousands of edits and create thousands of new articles to augment the knowledge held by the Wikipedia encyclopedia.”

Unlike static encyclopedias, this allows for a flow of ever-changing and improving  information. This is a good thing.  The continual editing of Wikipedia articles , over time, “generally results in an upward trend of quality and a growing consensus over a neutral representation of information”.

The downside is, for starting Wikipedia articles, they may not be of quality as of yet. But the longer an article exists and the more hands in updating the information and citations, the better and more reliable it gets. This is a new media source that brings knowledge and access to knowledge to the table that no other encyclopedia does.

For those that claim it is unreliable, well, if they actually go to the bottom of any Wikipedia page they will usually see a list of citations and links that they can follow and research the actual source of information, if they were so inclined.

Wikipedia is information sharing at its best, and people need to think before they knock it down for short comings that are more that made up for. I say support Wikipedia. It is one of the best sites on the web.