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Stop Wikipedia Shaming

by Alison Hudson

December 1, 2014

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Donate Wikipedia has gotten a bogeyman reputation for inaccuracy. "I read it on Wikipedia" has become a punchline for obviously incorrect information, and any reference to Wikipedia in an article has a tendency to draw derisive comments that essentially dismiss the entire article due to the addition of a link. I've come to think of it as "Wikipedia shaming" -- deriding and discrediting an article because it happens to reference or link to Wikipedia at some point, regardless of the quality of the information presented both in the Wikipedia link and in the original article. Such views are themselves inaccurate and ill-informed. Wikipedia's reputation for unreliability is itself an unreliable position to take.

I am a college English instructor, and I've found it to be a common trope in education that Wikipedia is a useless resource. Every college I have ever worked for had some sort of general academic policy on Wikipedia, mostly "do not let your students reference Wikipedia in their papers." You can also find examples of such policies online. The reason usually given is that "Wikipedia is non-scholarly and unreliable."

They're half right; Wikipedia is non-scholarly, for sure. But then again, so are a lot of resources people trust. "Non-scholarly" is not a synonym for "not reliable." "Non-scholarly" simply means "wasn't written by a credited expert in the field and published in a peer-reviewed journal with complete references." Despite the fact that many field experts do spend time reading and editing in Wikipedia and Wikipedia articles do strive for complete references, it's not a scholarly source.

Where I dissent from the popular view of Wikipedia is in its reputation for unreliability. A 2005 study by Nature found that Wikipedia's accuracy was comparable to the Encyclopedia Britannica (though the writing style was considered inferior). A University of Oxford/Epic e-learning follow-up study released in 2012 (yes, with some support from the Wikimedia Foundation) found that Wikipedia held its own against a variety of reference works. A 2014 study of drug information on Wikipedia found that its drug-related information was 99.7% accurate compared to pharmacological textbooks. If you want a more comprehensive listing of reliability studies on Wikipedia, there's one place you can go: Wikipedia, which doesn't shy away from reporting on the good and bad of its own content.

"But what about that story I heard about the kid who wrote a fake entry and it stayed up for, like, four years?" Yes, that is one of the weaknesses on the model, and one of the reasons I just called it "non-scholarly". You know who keeps a running list of acknowledged Wikipedia hoaxes? Wikipedia does. And you'll notice that most of the longstanding ones were able to survive mostly because they were small, unimportant topics that people weren't likely to be referencing anyway -- a made-up but otherwise historically unimportant supposed assassin of Julius Ceaser, or someone claiming they were the mayor of a small Chinese town. Vandalism happens, but it's usually caught fairly quickly and reverted; and the vandals are usually blocked and banned.

Time is also a factor in Wikipedia's reliability. Wikipedia has gotten consistently better since its inception more than a decade ago. Unlike a journal article, a blog post, or the Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia is constantly being updated. That's the very nature of the wiki model -- allowing the collected knowledge of the world to accrete in one place. Wikipedia also has the Wikimedia Foundation behind it actively looking for ways to improve the information on the site, as well as an entire process of editorial control. The days of "you can write anything you want on Wikipedia" are long gone.

It is for all these reasons that I do reference Wikipedia in my blog posts and I will continue to do so in the future. When I do, it's usually for the purpose of general information, which is exactly what Wikipedia is good for. If someone doesn't know what ascorbic acid is, it's much more practical, from a get-the-basics-and-get-back-to-reading perspective, to just link the reader to Wikipedia where they can read the first paragraph or two, get the idea, and then return to the original article.

Wikipedia is also a good source of links to other resources. One thing I often point out to students in my college courses is that "Wikipedia has more, better citations than your last essay did." For example, consider the following passage from Wikipedia's entry on aspartame:
The safety of aspartame has been studied extensively since its discovery with research that includes animal studies, clinical and epidemiological research, and postmarketing surveillance,[38] with aspartame being one of the most rigorously tested food ingredients to date.[39] Peer-reviewed comprehensive review articles and independent reviews by governmental regulatory bodies have analyzed the published research on the safety of aspartame and have found aspartame is safe for consumption at current levels.[8][38][40][41] Aspartame has been deemed safe for human consumption by over 100 regulatory agencies in their respective countries,[41] including the UK Food Standards Agency,[42] the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)[43] and Health Canada.[44]
That passage has ten references to eight different sources, many of them the official statements of various government agencies; it also comes from an entry with eighty-five different referenced works. I wish the typical student essay or Internet comment post were so thoroughly sourced!

It's because of these two views that I often actually tell my students to start with Wikipedia when they conduct research. Many times students, like your typical Internet commenter, know a little bit about a topic but not nearly enough to go on at length. In fact, in some classes I will actually assign the Wikipedia article as a reading assignment and then have them answer some pointed questions based on the information found there. They're going to read it anyways; I might as well acknowledge the fact and make sure everyone's got the basics down before they begin the real research. [It also reminds them that I read Wikipedia, too, which usually dissuades at least a few attempts at lazy Wikipedia plagiarism.]

Of course, I also tell my students to verify information in a second source, because I'm aware that *any* single source of information may be flawed. That's not my stance just on Wikipedia, but on any important fact. Starting with Wikipedia is fine; but ending with Wikipedia is a lazy way to do research.

By the sheer power of its size, Wikipedia actually does what the wiki concept intends to do: it harnesses the collective knowledge of the Internet and distills it into digestible form. Sure, there are weaknesses in the model, but there's weaknesses in every model. There is no shame in making a general reference to Wikipedia, and there iscertainlyno shame in mining Wikipedia's references for other sources. So please, stop Wikipedia shaming authors who toss an informational link to Wikipedia into their posts. It makes you look petulant and clearly indicates that you didn't even bother to read the referenced passage and/or you want to avoid the point being made.

And before you respond to this article with "But look! Here's an error I found in Wikipedia!" consider this: you found an error on Wikipedia? Good! You're supposed to. If you're smart enough to notice it, though, you're smart enough to correct it, so why not make your own little contribution to the collected knowledge of the Internet community. Just be ready to credit a source; unlike most discussion forums or comments sections, Wikipedia demands citation.

by Alison Hudson

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