“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,” founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales said in 2004, just shortly after the online encyclopedia reached over one million articles.
The goal, most would agree, is noble, but how has Wikipedia shaped up to Wales’ vision, particularly in the sphere of academia? As of late 2017, it is the world’s fifth most commonly visited website worldwide, drawing in around 495 million unique readers per month. The caveat, however, that has prevented it from being accepted in academia, is that it grants the power to anyone on the internet to edit its articles.
Indeed, any person with internet access can log on to a Wikipedia article and begin making edits – at least that’s the notion many have. This, however, is only part of the bigger picture. While most pages on Wikipedia are, indeed, subject to edits from any internet user, thousands of pages covering the most popular of topics are protected or semi-protected, meaning that one must have an account registered to make edits. In addition, edits to these pages are usually subject to intense scrutiny from editors devoted to preventing vandalism.
The common attack on Wikipedia’s reliability stems from this. After all, if anyone can make edits to the pages, how can you know that someone didn’t simply enter false information on any given page?
There are several angles to counter this concern from. Protected articles are one way to cut down on these concerns, but it doesn’t eliminate the possibility that information on a page may be false. Numerous informal tests have been performed by a variety of publications where writers inject false information into articles to seeing how quickly they are reverted. In most cases, vandalistic edits were undone within minutes.
Within Wikipedia is a little-known, often-overlooked network of pages loosely governing the website, developed by several editors over the course of the encyclopedia’s existence, known as articles in the Wikipedia Namespace. These pages, which are always titled as Wikipedia:PageName, provide insight into the rigor that goes into validating information on a wide variety of subjects. Reading into some of these pages reveals an interesting truth about Wikipedia that is conveniently omitted by its critics: the standard of accepting information is often just as rigorous as print encyclopedias – a point that has in the past been disputed by encyclopedias such as Encyclopaedia Britannica. Nevertheless, these guidelines are consistently enforced by several volunteer editors and a few administrators. Thus, a common argument within the community of Wikipedia editors is that the website “works by consensus.”
Editors responsible for creating pages are often quick to revert unverified additions of information, with IBM researchers finding in a 2003 study that “vandalism is usually repaired extremely quickly—so quickly that most users will never see its effects.” Nevertheless, due to the massive amounts of edits made to Wikipedia every day, checking every edit to ensure it complies with these guidelines is impossible. Vandalism and misinformation have been known to slip through.
During the 2008 presidential election for example, The New York Times exposed a series of roughly 30 edits made to the Wikipedia page on Sarah Palin just a day before she was announced as John McCain’s running mate. The edits, which consisted mostly of statements of praise for Palin, were revealed to have been made by a staffer on McCain’s campaign.
Nonetheless, the evidence seems to favor Wikipedia as a trustworthy source on a variety of topics, particularly articles that are wellreferenced. Still, that doesn’t mean you should try citing it on your papers, with Wales himself saying in 2005 that encyclopedias are not intended to be primary sources. “In most cases, students should use Wikipedia as an entry to a topic, but serious academic work usually requires digging deeper,” said Michael Gavin, an English professor here at USC. “This means following up on the sources cited in Wikipedia, reading them closely, and thinking hard about the research questions.” Gavin noted as a disclaimer that students should, of course, always direct questions about sourcing to their instructors.
History PhD Candidate Patrick O’Brien shared Gavin’s sentiments, bluntly saying “The reality is still this, college students who cite Wikipedia, even protected pages, are simply lazy. The Wikipedia page is a launching ground for further investigation with a number of sources to send you in the right direction.”
Still, the point about using Wikipedia to gather a general understanding about a topic rather than a citable source isn’t uncommon. Some have argued that in that capacity alone Wikipedia may have a place in academia, albeit not as a citable source. “As a search tool, Wikipedia is fantastic. Identifying primary sources is part of that, but much more important is the ability to click around and get a sense of your topic by following links,” Gavin said, adding “any time I’m learning something new, I start at Wikipedia and read pages related to the topic, just to get a feel for the contours of what I need to know.”
“In essence, a Wikipedia article is a well-written research paper building from scholarly interpretations,” said O’Brien. “The biggest difference, however, is while Encyclopedia Britannica, and therefore Wikipedia, might be a good research “ending point” for grade school students, it should only be a launching ground for college research,” he said, while also saying that the footnotes at the end of articles are great ways for students to begin digging deeper into a topic.
Gavin also pointed to specific topics which he says Wikipedia is more reliable about than others. “Basic geographical and historical questions tend to be handled very well. Mathematical concepts are often explained very clearly,” he said, going on to note that controversial topics can pose a challenge when it comes to editors remaining objective. Gavin also said that “highly specialized entries” tend to be more prone to error and incomplete.
The online encyclopedia has been defended in some corners as a good way to see how new information is verified. Articles are often substantiated by so-called “Talk” pages – spaces where editors discuss at length the best way to write an article and oftentimes tackle controversial edits. Some have posited that these pages serve as insight in and of themselves to help students see the standard newly-introduced information has undergone, but Gavin notes that this may not always be practical. “In reality for most students and researchers this is much less practical than it sounds,” he said. “If the precise contents of a specific page are interesting for some reason, digging into the talk page and history can be clarifying. But if you’re taking European history and need to read up on the League of Augsburg, or if you’re in biology class and need a refresher on the citric acid cycle, the talk pages aren’t that important.”
O’Brien agreed, saying that he’s “highly skeptical of the idea that ‘talk pages’ will ever cement answers to some of the biggest historical questions,” and posits that most students aren’t likely to venture into the talk page. O’Brien did say, however, that they’re a way for students “to interact with the historical narrative.”
“Wikipedia is a tremendous starting point and can provide a cursory background on a subject. For students interested in doing more than the bare minimum, Wikipedia is perhaps their greatest ally. For students interested in doing the least work possible, Wikipedia is perhaps the most deadly trap,” said O’Brien.