When we’re doing research, at some point we probably all land on this well-known platform called: Wikipedia! It seems to cover everything and it’s simply amazing to get a good first overview, isn’t it?
With currently around 6,056,461 English articles and an average of 585 new articles per day (WikiStats, 13.04.2020) it’s super easy to get all the main and perhaps most important information at one glance. Copy, paste – and ready is your research paper!
At least that is what a lot of articles say and university professors and scientists are afraid about: Students and others who take the very first headlines in Google for granted, who don’t question critically anymore and who lazily choose the easy way: using Wikipedia as their main source.
That is one reason why every couple of years there is at least one mainstream media article titled “But Can We Trust Wikipedia?” A question which has been widely discussed.
“In general, Wikipedians are considered at best to be a group of amateurs unable to deliver at high academic standards.”(Keen, as cited in Jmielniak, 2016, p.1173)
“a professor who encourages the use of Wikipedia is the intellectual equivalent of a dietician who recommends a steady diet of Big Macs with everything”(Gorman, as cited in, Reagle, 2010, p. 138).
Each of the Wikipedia articles has a disclaimer that says that “the article published may not have accurate information completely.” But does this consequently exclude Wikipedia for academic research completely? Probably not!
In this blog post, I want to bring light into the darkness by trying to examine whether Wikipedia might be considered as a reliable source indeed.
So, where does Wikipedia’s information come from?
The data comes from you, me, and us! We are the editors and the ones who police entries! And how do we get to be one of the 200,000 Wikipedia editors? “Well, there’s no application form, no request for your CV, no job interview, no salary. You start off making edits to improve pages (…) and when you’ve done some useful edits with verifiable information, your privileges are extended to give you more power” (Barnett, 2018) Which means that you then can set up new pages about knowledge that doesn’t exist in the Wiki-World so far!
If this were the only thing, I could totally understand why people are so suspicious about Wikipedia’s contents. That sounds too easy to be trustful! But writing a Wikipedia article requires more. It’s about “reviewing academic sources, synthesizing knowledge, using proper references, and writing clearly” (Jmelniak, 2016, p. 1775) You cannot just make something up!
Studies show: Wiki-Information is as reliable as books are!
To look at Wikipedia from a scientific point of view, there are multiple studies (if you’re interested in, please have a look at the bibliography at the bottom) that show some very surprising results. To name only a few:
First, there is an increasing trend in Wikipedia to include references to standard scientific journals as its primary sources (Nielsen, 2007). Second, the citation frequency is very similar to the patterns in the scientific literature (Nielsen, 2007). And third, focusing on studies which deal explicitly with the question “Is Wikipedia trustful?” their results are all quite similar:
This argument, fourthly, is supported by Reavley et al. who found out that the information seems to be of high quality as compared to the well-known Encyclopedia Britannica, psychiatry textbooks, and other websites (Reavley et al., 2012).
And to make a fifth observation: According to Yasseri & Kertész Wikipedia has high overall linguistic readability (Yasseri & Kertész, 2012) which seems to be of high importance for me. Because how many books have you tried to read without getting any clue of what they were trying to tell you? Wikipedia seems to be less complex and more accessible to people. This might underline Wikipedias wish to astonish knowledge to everybody in the world.
But who does the proof!?
So here we go, studies show it is trustful! But does this automatically mean that all the Wikipedia pages are credible sources? Of course not! How can we find out?
To take stock of the reliability, there is one main fact which is mentioned again and again: The number of edits is crucial! Several past studies have found out that the more an article is edited, the higher the quality (Wilson 2014). So when you scroll down to the very end of a Wikipedia article, you can find the date when it was last edited, to get a first impression whether it is still a current topic people are working on or whether it is already outdated. Moreover, have you ever clicked on the button “View history” on the very top? There you can see WHAT people have edited. Which can be quite funny sometimes:
“See something you don’t like on a page? Then you can click on this tab, and quickly and easily change the entire page. But you’d better be sure of your information and have the sources to back up your information, or it won’t last long. (…)(as cited on the Independent, 18.02.2018)
So there is this community of 140.000 regularly contributing editors who proof the provided information, follow all the given sources and do make sure that everything is correct and credible. The number is calculated automatically by the WikiMedia software which runs the Wikipedia pages. They also do use bots to identify fake news by the way. If you’re interested, here you can find a list:
“It’ll probably last an hour at the most,” says John Lubbock, communications coordinator at Wikimedia UK. “We get this sort of vandalism of pages quite frequently but someone will be along to delete it and put the page back to how it was.”(as cited on the Independent, 18.02.2018)
Speaking about sciences, it has also been found “that a journal’s academic status (understood as its impact factor) is the most important predictor of its appearance in Wikipedia references” (Teplitskiy, Lu, & Duede; cited in Jmelniak, 2016, p. 1774). And that’s an interrelation! Because scientists are also using Wikipedia for building up their researches and moreover it is influencing how they write about the science that they are doing! (Thomson, cited on EdTech, 14.12.2017)
So if scientists are using Wikipedia, why is it still not permitted for students to refer to Wiki-pages in return?
Wikipedia changes academia!
Professors, scientist, and books aren’t the only sources which provide knowledge anymore. Inquisitive people are not dependent on them but can acquire knowledge on their own far more easily than in older days. Thanks to the Internet!
“Wikipedia challenges the established model of distribution of knowledge and the traditional authority of academia.”(Eijkman and O’Neil; cited in Jmelniak, 2016)
Do scholars suffer from this in a psychological sense? There are articles which argue that despising Wikipedia as a credible source originated in “jealousy regarding the loss of the knowledge dissemination monopoly of the academia” (Jmelniak, 2019). And they call out firmly promoting the use and development of Wikipedia in academia:
“Professors and students are in the top 1% of the privileged in terms of access to knowledge and education, it seems to be a good deed to help those who are less fortunate by developing free knowledge reservoirs, especially if it is done at zero cost.”(Jmelniak, 2016)
Let’s do something new! Students for Wikipedia!?
It is one of Wikipedia’s own strategies “to become a research aid that all students can trust” and to involve them as contributors: “you, in the course of your research, find that there is misinformation on Wikipedia, look over the basic guidelines of Wikipedia and especially what the community considers a reliable source and please consider editing the article (and even creating an account) with what you have learned.” (Wikipedia on Academic Use)
If you think this only one step further: Couldn’t we kill two birds with one stone and write a Wikipedia article as an academic assignment for university? Because this includes exactly what academia expects from us, doesn’t it? Finding reliable and verifiable sources, synthesizing their content and evaluating it. Writing an encyclopedic entry could be much more fun! And it is definitely more convenient to write for a greater public than only writing for getting a good grade and after that, your paper ends up in a drawer.
In addition, it makes even your professor’s life much easier! Because new articles are often checked for plagiarism and commented on by members of the community. Well, perhaps we should hand in a proper document to our professors first, to assure that the submission is truly our work only. But then, we could publish it! And could even develop some studies which examine the changes and corrections of other contributors. With the result – perhaps – that the entry is even better now than it was before. This would be another proof for: Yes, Wikipedia is a credible source!
Moreover, by writing a Wikipedia article we can make the world to a better place! Billions of people do not have access to free knowledge while we are (according to Jmelniak) the 1% privileged. Let’s help to astonish knowledge for the other 99% out there!
Time for a conclusion!?
After all MY researches on this topic (and trust me, that has been a LOT!), my bottom line is: We can trust Wikipedia. As much as we can trust anyone who tells us anything in the analog world. It’s about digital literacy and about questioning what we come along with. It’s about not being satisfied only with a good overview provided by Wikipedia but digging deeper, following its main literary sources and proofing by ourselves!
As a media teacher myself, I usually teach children and teenagers the mechanism of media by producing our own media product all together, following the learning-by-doing-approach. So logically, my next task would be to write a Wikipedia article myself. Hopefully as an assignment which even gets a good mark? Otherwise, I have helped to contribute some more credible knowledge to the world at least. And that is perhaps enough to be content with, isn’t it?
Because where when not on Wikipedia could we find as relevant information as presented here? 😉
Thank you so much for reading!
And if you want to dig deeper (because you’re all critical and are always looking for primary sources for sure) here is my
Barnett, D. (2018): Can we trust Wikipedia? 1.4 billion people can’t be wrong. Published On: Independent,18.02.2018.
Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/wikipedia-explained-what-is-it-trustworthy-how-work-wikimedia-2030-a8213446.html [Accessed 28.02.2020]
Cortez, M. B. (2017): Is Wikipedia a Trustworthy Academic Resource? Scientists Think So. Published On: EdTech, 14.12.2017
Available at: https://edtechmagazine.com/higher/article/2017/12/wikipedia-trustworthy-academic-resource-scientists-think-so
Eijkman, H. (2010). Academics and Wikipedia: Reframing Web 2.01 as a disruptor of traditional academic power-knowledge arrangements. Campus-Wide Information Systems, Volume 27, Issue 3, pp. 173–185.
Available at: https://www.academia.edu/1546366/Academics_and_Wikipedia_Reframing_Web_2.0_as_a_disruptor_of_traditional_academic_power-knowledge_arrangements
Ghose, T. (2015): Is Wikipedia trustworthy when it comes to science? Published On: The Washington Post, 24.08.2015.
Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/is-wikipedia-trustworthy-when-it-comes-to-science/2015/08/24/74c71904-4755-11e5-846d-02792f854297_story.html
Keen, A. (2007). The cult of the amateur: How today’s internet is killing our culture. New York: Broadway Business.
Kränenbring et al. (2014): Accuracy and Completeness of Drug Information in Wikipedia: A Comparison with Standard Textbooks of Pharmacology. PLOS ONE, Volume 9, Issue 9.
Available at: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0106930 [Accessed 26.02.2020]
Javanmardi, S. and Lopes, C. (2010): Statistical Measure of Quality in Wikipedia. SOMA ’10: Proceedings of the First Workshop on Social Media Analytics, pp. 132-138. New York: Association for Computing Machinery.
Available at: http://snap.stanford.edu/soma2010/papers/soma2010_18.pdf [Accessed 26.02.2020]
Jemielniak, D. and Aibar (2016): Bridging the Gap Between Wikipedia and Academia. E. JOURNAL OF THE ASSOCIATION FOR INFORMATION SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, 67(7): 1773–1776. Published online 4 April 2016 in Wiley Online Library.
Available at: https://asistdl.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/asi.23691 [Accessed 28.02.2020]
Jemielniak, D. (2019): Wikipedia: Why is the common knowledge resource still neglected by academics? GigaScience, 8, 2019, 1–2 2019. Published by Oxford University Press.
Available at: https://academic.oup.com/gigascience/article/8/12/giz139/5651107 [Accessed 02.03.2020]
Nielsen, F. A. (2007). Scientific citations in Wikipedia. First Monday, Volume 12, Issue 8.
Available at: https://firstmonday.org/article/view/1997/1872 [Accessed 26.02.2020]
Reavley et al. (2012). Quality of information sources about mental disorders: A comparison of Wikipedia with centrally controlled web and printed sources. Psychological Medicine, 48(8), pp. 1753–1762.
Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22166182 [Accessed 26.02.2020]
Teplitskiy, M., Lu, G., & Duede, E. (2015): Amplifying the impact of open access: Wikipedia and the diffusion of science. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 2015. Available at: https://arxiv.org/abs/1506.07608 [Accessed 26.02.2020]
Wilson, A. and Likens, G.: Content Volatility of Scientific Topics in Wikipedia: A Cautionary Tale. PLOS ONE, Volume 10, Issue 8.
Available at: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0134454 [Accessed 26.02.2020]
Yasseri, T., & Kertész, J. (2012). Value production in a collaborative environment. Journal of Statistical Physics May 2013, Volume 151, Issue 3-4, pp 414-439.
Available at: https://arxiv.org/abs/1208.5130 [Accessed 26.02.2020]
Wikipedia: Academic Use.
Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Academic_use [Accessed 28.02.2020]
Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Bots/Status [Accessed 28.02.2020]
Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Statistics [Accessed 02.03.2020]
Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedians [Accessed 28.02.2020]
Wikipedia: Wikipedia is not a reliable source.
Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedia_is_not_a_reliable_source [Accessed 28.02.2020]
Pictures and Videos
Funny Wikipedia edits. Charlie Sheen: https://www.boredpanda.com/funny-wikipedia-edits/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic
It’s true. It’s on Wikipedia: https://tenor.com/view/its-on-wikipedia-true-wikipedia-unreliable-gif-6138435
Slightly unusual Wikipedia articles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PXx9TGsiwV0