Assessing Wikipedia 2: Accuracy

We've recently been researching Wikipedia, looking into the way its community works and discovering the good and bad aspects of "The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit." Much has been written about Wikipedia: some positive, some negative, but little of it does more than scratch the surface of the collaborative aspects.

This is one of an occasional series of posts outlining our thoughts.

Wikipedia is often criticized for containing incorrect information. Such criticism has spilled over into popular culture, with well-known comedians using Wikipedia in their punchlines, usually in the form, " must be true, I read it in Wikipedia." Indeed, when the well-known British composer Ronnie Hazlehurst died earlier this year, a hoax Wikipedia entry fooled several newspaper obituary writers into repeating the hoax.

On the other hand, a study by the magazine Nature concluded that, although Wikipedia contains a small number of serious errors, that number is very similar to the level found in Encyclopedia Britannica Online. As Wikipedia itself says, "There is a tentative consensus, backed by a gradual increase in academic citation as a source, that [Wikipedia] provides a good starting point for research, and that articles in general have proven to be reasonably sound."

So should Wikipedia be used for research? No, of course not -- at least, not directly. Any encyclopedia should only be used as a secondary or tertiary source. However, Wikipedia's extreme collaborative nature means it does an increasingly good job at citing its sources -- it is these sources that serious researchers should use to verify information, as well as other sources found independently. Be especially cautious if you see [citation needed] next to a fact, or if the fact has no reference at all.

In the next post in this series, we'll look closer at the phenomenon of Wikipedia vandalism, examining the motivation and responses.

Previously in this series:

  1. Introduction

... Richi Jennings

One Comment

  1. OJ Jonasson
    Posted November 14, 2007 at 7:43 AM | Permalink

    Good and very sensible set of comments for any Wikipedia user level. I find Wiki invaluable as a starting point for totally unfamiliar subject matter. At times it can also be very verbose & useful for a more in-depth explanation of highly technical subject matter.

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