Wikipedia: Can It Be Trusted?

Wikipedia: Can It Be Trusted?

by Katie Constantine

If I learned one thing in high school that will stick with me through my academic career it is to avoid Wikipedia at all costs. My previous teachers and librarians antagonistically drilled it into my brain that Wikipedia was not to be used in any school-based research because of its faulty reliability. Not until now have I questioned my teachers’ logic. Wikipedia is a non-traditional, online encyclopedia that encourages collaborative thinking and the collective recording of data. Wikipedia allows any anonymous person to easily update and change its information on an array of different topics. As a result, Wikipedia is one of the most popular websites online today, welcoming more than “400 million unique visitors each month” (Parker, et al. 15). Its quick accessibility and free cost are just a couple reasons why Wikipedia is so popular and widely used. Although it has often been criticized for its credibility, one central question has recently come in to play: Should Wikipedia be deemed credible enough to be used in research-based work?

The topic of Wikipedia‘s credibility issues has not been ignored. Several articles have been published stating that Wikipedia is more credible than some scholars may think. Tammy Parker, et al. compares the similarity of Wikipedia‘s margin of error to the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica in the essay, “Wikipedia: Friend or Foe,” finding that “87% of the Wikipedia articles had no errors” (15). By stating this, the authors point out that Wikipedia is credible the majority of the time, and therefore, could be a useful tool in college level coursework. In Cathy Davidson’s article, “We Can’t Ignore the Influence of Digital Technologies,” the topic of credibility is also heavily addressed. Davidson states that “Errors in Wikipedia are not more frequent than those in comparable print sources” (167). By saying this, Davidson is complimenting Wikipedia‘s ability to correct their mistakes, compared to published print sources that cannot correct the mistakes or update new information. She is also pointing out that neither Wikipedia nor printed sources are correct one hundred percent of the time.

However, Chandler J. Cullen and Alison S. Gregory have a slightly opposing perspective than Parker and Davidson. In “Sleeping with the Enemy: Wikipedia in the College Classroom,” Chandler and Gregory explain that Wikipedia can indeed make changes and corrections to its content; however, the research lacks a “scholarly backbone” since the person updating the information is not necessarily reputable (247). Chandler and Gregory’s essay also points out that according to a 2005 study, Wikipedia has slightly more inaccuracies than Encyclopedia Britannica, yet they are still very close in terms of serious errors and faulty information. All of the essays agree that Wikipedia is often falsely accused of its misinformation, yet offer their own insights to the issue. Parker, et al. and Davidson agree that Wikipedia‘s errors are very similar to those of other scholarly sources, and Chandler and Gregory’s essay differs by pointing out that Wikipedia‘s content lacks scholarly writers. Wikipedia‘s credibility is a common concern for many scholarly critics.

The use of Wikipedia in school research has gained recent attention in today’s society. Parker, et al. lays out an interesting point about the rising cost of college textbooks and how Wikipedia could be a possible substitute. Parker, et al. explores the possibility of using the website in place of textbooks for introductory college classes. A study was done to test the usage of Wikipedia with students and teachers at the University of Louisiana. The results surprisingly prove that on average, faculty members were more open to the use of Wikipedia and also used it more often than the students. In fact, the study found that only “30% of students reported that they would view Wikipedia as a viable replacement of the textbook, in comparison, 62% of the faculty” (Parker, et al. 18). This result is very complimentary to Parker, et al.’s argument of using Wikipedia in class by finding that scholarly educators use the site even more often than their student counterparts. Davidson also explores the topic of Wikipedia in schools, but by expressing her concern over colleges banning it. When Cathy Davidson heard that Wikipedia was banned at Middlebury College, she immediately took action by writing to the college president. Davidson explains that the use of Wikipedia in college causes students to unite and collaborate in an educational environment. The process of thinking critically and educating students would be lessened if Wikipedia was banned. Davidson is very persistent in highlighting the positive aspects of Wikipedia used for school. In “Sleeping with the Enemy: Wikipedia in the College Classroom,” Chandler and Gregory took a much more active role in the argument by conducting a Wikipedia study that had very different results from the other sources. In 2008, a study was done at Lycoming College that involved students in an Islamic History Class. The class was assigned to research and post articles on different topics onto Wikipedia to become more informed users. The students spent a great deal of time researching and taking pride in their published work. By doing so, the students learned how Wikipedia worked in the editing aspect, how it handled profanity, and how it regulated copyrighted material. As a result: “the majority of the class (roughly 80%) said that they now thought Wikipedia was less useful than they originally thought” (Chandler 255). This result differs from the other sources, because the study showed that when the students took an active role in Wikipedia, they found it to be less credible then they previously predicted. Parker, et al. and Davidson support Wikipedia in schools, yet Chandler and Gregory’s essay proves that Wikipedia is not the most effective site to use for school.

Wikipedia has many different methods to correct and edit faulty information posted on its website. According to Parker, et al., Wikipedia has rules and regulations that people are expected to follow when posting new or editing already existing information. The users are asked to adhere to a few simple rules: they must submit viable information and they must write from a non-biased point of view. These rules were put into practice during the experiment in Chandler and Gregory’s essay. The students in the experiment learned to make an account on Wikipedia to track the edits they made anywhere on the site. They learned that profane or inappropriate information posted was “almost immediately censored by Wikipedia” (Chandler and Gregory 251). The website also has a Wikipedia Sandbox tool that aided the students on how to become Wikipedia-proficient through mock practice. The students in the experiment learned that the information they posted was edited and changed very quickly after they had added it; therefore, the study proves that there are many people researching and constantly editing Wikipedia, which Chandler and Gregory believe to be an important lesson of the changing reliability of the site. Davidson’s essay contributes to the editing conversation on Wikipedia as well. Davidson had researched two well-known literary critics on Wikipedia and found inaccurate information that did not represent the critics very well at first. She even called the writing about them “character assassinations” (Davidson 170). However, when Davidson checked back two months later, the information was completely changed and corrected. Davidson’s experience was very similar to Chandler and Gregory’s essay where the incorrect or invalid information was edited in a short time period. Wikipedia‘s constantly changing site can update and fix faulty information which proves to be a perk for research in all of the essays.

Wikipedia is not strictly limited to school-based research. In Chandler and Gregory’s essay, for instance, the study on Wikipedia use in school is concluded by exploring its appropriate uses. The study concludes that the site is acceptable for a short, quick reference to learn more about a specific topic, but it should not, by any means, be the only place you visit to find information. It also suggests that reliable information can be attained from the individual cited articles from Wikipedia. One student involved in the experiment explains this by saying, “It’s okay for the layperson to get an overview, but it’s not good research unless you just use it [Wikipedia] for the references” (Chandler and Gregory 255). Cathy Davidson explains a different, out-of-the box way to use Wikipedia. Davidson admits that her book purchasing has greatly increased from using Wikipedia. She explains that she is often interested in the discussion pages on Wikipedia and frequently becomes involved and interested in a debate, which in turn leads her to different books. As a scholarly writer, Davidson often finds herself reading up on new topics that expand her knowledge and buying new books, all because of Wikipedia. The article, “Wikipedia: Friend or Foe,” explores a strictly academic approach to the use of Wikipedia. In the article, Parker, et al. suggests that instead of shutting Wikipedia out of students’ lives, it could possibly replace textbooks as a free way to learn valuable information. Parker, et al, omit other uses for Wikipedia and solely focus on the relationship between students, teachers, and Wikipedia. All of the articles provide very different uses for the website. Several resourceful uses have sprouted from Wikipedia, such as helpful links, interesting discussions, and college-level information, which have stretched its use beyond the classroom.

Despite many of my teachers’ negative connotations of Wikipedia, after researching the topic further, I see a whole other side to the site. I originally thought that Wikipedia was not to be used for school or personal enjoyment, for that matter, but now I see that as long as you know how to use it, it can be useful. I have learned that it should never be used as the only source when you are researching something, and it is always best to find other sources to back up research. After exploring the three essays, I gained a great deal of knowledge about Wikipedia‘s credibility issues and how it works. Stemming from the information provided in the essays, I would like to research who actually overseas Wikipedia, who corrects its mistakes, and also if schools should be allowed to cite Wikipedia in a research paper. The main question I would like to explore is: Should Wikipedia be trusted to find reliable information? Throughout my research I hope to learn more about Wikipedia‘s credibility issues and how different institutions and teachers feel about Wikipedia being used in school. I would even like to perform my own experiment on Wikipedia by making an account and editing two separate paragraphs. I would like to edit the first one by adding correct information or simply paraphrasing what was already written. For the second paragraph, I would like to post completely incorrect and invalid information. After doing so, I want to record the time it takes for my articles to be edited or corrected. By doing this, I can learn more about how Wikipedia works and also learn how fast incorrect information is edited, which will help me with my exploration. I would ultimately like to base my research on the aspects that make Wikipedia different from traditional encyclopedias.

Works Cited

Chandler, Cullen J., and Alison S. Gregory. “Sleeping with the Enemy: Wikipedia in the College Classroom.” The History Teacher 43, (2010): 247-257. Lycoming College. Web. 4 March 2013.

Davidson, Cathy. “We Can’t Ignore the Influence of Digital Technologies.” The Digital Divide; Arguments for and Against Facebook, Google, Texting, and the Age of Social Networking. Ed. Mark Bauerlein. New York: Penguin Group, 2011. 166-71. Print.

Parker, Tammy, et al. “Wikipedia: Friend or Foe.” Proceedings of the Academy for Economics and Economic Education 15, (2012): 13-20. Allied Academics International Conference. Web. 4 March 2013.