Working at a public library Reference Desk, I see students using Wikipedia everyday. Some librarians and educators view the site with suspicion, but no one can deny that students love it. As information professional, I love it too. Despite its flaws, Wikipedia is an excellent first stop on any research quest, and it remains one of the better free reference tools on the web.
Wikipedia was launched in 2001 with the intent of creating a collaborative online encyclopedia that could eventually rival a traditional encyclopedia’s scope and accuracy. The idea was to let ordinary users contribute, edit, and modify articles so that over time they would become as accurate as possible. The site would then offer its content freely to anyone who wanted to use or distribute it under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. The website was beyond successful – it was a phenomenon. In the last five years, Wikipedia users have contributed over 1,108,000 English-language articles. According to Alexa.com, Wikipedia is now the 17th most popular website worldwide.
Wikipedia’s appeal is easy to understand. It is attractive and easy to navigate, allowing students, researchers, and journalists to find reference information quickly. The site also has a great deal of social appeal. When you use Wikipedia, you are no longer a lone researcher, but part of a community. You can offer suggestions or modify texts, allowing you to share in the authorship of a significant work. Finally, there is a certain antiauthoritarian streak that Wikipedia seems to stroke. Wikipedia allows users to thumb their noses at subject experts and scholars. It is more like a conversation than a lecture.
Of course, none of Wikipedia’s attractive qualities would matter if the site could be shown to be inaccurate. After all, a reference website that is easy to use but confused the facts of the Revolutionary and Civil wars would be worthless. Surprisingly, Wikipedia seems to be very accurate overall. A recent study by Nature magazine found that there was no significant difference in the number of errors found in science-oriented Wikipedia articles and those found in Britannica.
Wikipedia maintains this level of accuracy by encouraging modifications over time as readers discover errors in a given article. This means that older articles are generally more accurate, and newer articles must be viewed with a little more suspicion. The level of documentation for most articles is also impressive. Wikipedia asks that users base articles on verifiable outside sources and many articles boast extensive bibliographies.
Nonetheless, some aspects of Wikipedia remain troubling. Many educators will not allow students to cite it as a source because it lacks a legacy of authority. This may change over time, but in truth, I doubt it. While many subject experts do contribute to articles, the fact that a user may alter the text means that at any given moment an article may move from reliable to unreliable status. It also means that Wikipedia is vulnerable to those with political agendas. Wikipedia claims that such attempts generally fail over time because other users will eventually correct articles, but that is little comfort to students unfortunate enough to base a paper on false or misleading information that no one has spotted. A second problem is the uneven quality of the writing. For example, the entry on Benjamin Franklin states, “His wise and scintillating writings are proverbial to this day.” Such clunky prose does little to communicate knowledge or inspire confidence.
Despite its flaws, Wikipedia remains one of the most valuable free reference sites on the Internet. It is best used in tandem with other authoritative resources. Users should approach it with caution, but it would be foolish not to make use of such an amazing collection of human knowledge.