Wikipedia is “an online open-content collaborative encyclopedia”. Wikipedia pages are created by a voluntary association of individuals and groups working to develop a common resource of human knowledge. But, is Wikipedia reliable? Should it be used in academic research? Does vandalism happen on Wikipedia?
Wikipedia makes no guarantee or claim to be a reliable source of information. It has no formal peer review and yes, anyone with a phone/computer and internet access can edit its content. That said, you will find valuable and accurate information on Wikipedia.
That’s what we’re doing.” -Jimmy Wales Wikipedia Co-founder
With the ease of accessibility and succinct overviews, it has become widely accepted as the first port of call when it comes to finding information. If you have an Alexa or Google Home and you ask it a question, it’s going to go to Wikipedia to answer you. The increasingly popular ChatGPT and similar AI models are trained on large datasets that include a wide range of text from the internet.
Considering there are 6,726,544 Wikipedia pages in English, a lot of that information was collected from Wikipedia. Yet people are still skeptical about Wikipedia, particularly in academic or professional settings. Lots of uncertainty surrounds using it beyond cheating at a table quiz.
Time and time again, the question arises: Is Wikipedia reliable?
How often is Wikipedia used in research?
There are many myths and misconceptions when it comes to using Wikipedia, in academic settings. I’m sure many people are familiar with the feeling of sneaking onto Wikipedia to make sense of complex topics covered in school or lectures. It makes sense though. Wikipedia enables quick access to comprehensible information and for many can be a starting point or anchor when we are learning about a topic. Yet after many a stern warning staving off its use, we wouldn’t dare to let on that it was helpful on our journey to submitting that final assignment!
This reputation is misinformed. Wikipedia can be a powerful tool for education. Not only because it is inclusive and accessible (there’s no paywall and there never will be) but engagement with Wikipedia projects can enrich the learning experience as much as it does the open web itself.
Is Wikipedia Reliable for Academic Research?
Wikipedia can be a helpful springboard for research. Impartial information and solid facts are very useful for improving critical analysis and formulating our own opinions and ideas during research. Many Wikipedia articles include images, charts, graphs, and media files that can enhance understanding and engagement with the content. Wikipedia articles often link to related articles and external websites, which can help users explore a topic more comprehensively.
It is important to consider that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. It has never claimed to be an academic journal. It is not a place where you will find opinions or original research. It’s impartial information from a neutral point of view. You’ll find facts, knowledge, and useful leads to additional information via citations and sources. It is a useful starting point that offers concise overviews of an extremely wide range of topics.
– Wikimedia UK and The University of Edinburgh
Wikipedia can also be a useful tool for educators and students when it is used as a platform for collaborative learning and editing assignments.
Wikipedia offers a place for students from all fields of study and numerous levels of learning to practice their editing and writing skills in a low-stakes environment. If someone makes a mistake, it can be easily fixed. As a contributor to Wikipedia learners have the chance to understand, navigate, and critically evaluate information as well as develop an appreciation for the role and importance of open education. When the material produced by students is published it instantly goes live to a global audience. This can provide motivation and make for more meaningful learning experiences for students. Their work isn’t just going to be seen by their tutor but is adding to the international canon of information.
Getting educators on board is important so we can learn how Wikipedia works and use it to its full potential.
Is Wikipedia only in English?
Wikipedia is available in 335 languages, one of which is Gaelige. The platform offers a way to help increase the visibility of minority languages online. At the moment Irish is the 90th largest language on Wikipedia with 59 thousand articles (in comparison to English which has 6 million articles). It may seem small in comparison but is ever-growing and helping to solidify the language’s place in a technological world. Vicipéid is a place where people can actively engage with the Irish language and use their skills to create pages on topics relevant to current times or just of interest to them. It also allows other sources of information in Irish to be easily found by readers.
Is Wikipedia Inaccurate? Does Vandalism happen on Wikipedia?
So you might be thinking if anyone can edit Wikipedia pages, anyone can edit Wikipedia pages! What about vandalism, bias, and inaccuracies? Information can be edited by individuals with various intentions. As in any public space, vandalism, and misinformation can occur on Wikipedia, but it’s usually quickly spotted and edited by Wikipedians who want to add value to the platform. Vandalism and misinformation are typically addressed and corrected within minutes.
Can Anyone Edit Wikipedia Pages Without Consequences?
While Wikipedia is open for editing, it doesn’t mean anyone can make unrestricted changes. There are guidelines, policies, and a community of editors who monitor and review edits. The most active editors or Wikipedians who are involved are invested in the Wikipedia editing community. Wikipedia relies on this community of editors who work to maintain and improve the quality of its content. Users can contribute by correcting errors, updating information, or adding new content, helping to ensure its accuracy and completeness over time.
Wikipedians have user pages where they share their interests, have to-do lists, and can even display awards for editing milestones they have achieved or training sessions they have completed. Wikipedians take pride in the edits they make and usually have the intention to add value to the source. Many articles are well-researched, well-documented, and maintained by knowledgeable experts. Wikipedia benefits from the collective knowledge and contributions of volunteers from around the world. It often covers niche or obscure topics that may not be as readily available in other sources.
Wikipedians are united in a desire to make human knowledge available to every person on the planet.
There are even names for different types of editors in the community who play a role in making sure Wikipedia is as reliable and impartial as possible. For example, a WikiBouncer is an editor that is strictly against incivility and bias. WikiJanitors spend their time counteracting vandalism. WikiPolice is a term for editors who have studied policy actively and try to get it enforced. There is a whole list of different types of editors which just goes to show there is a community who care and want Wikipedia to be established as a reliable open knowledge resource.
“Wikipedia doesn’t work in theory, only in practice” -Anon/many
The more people contribute to Wikipedia, the more complete and reliable it will become.
That is not to say that there is still a long way to go in making Wikipedia a more inclusive and diverse space that accurately represents the world. However, crowd-sourcing knowledge invites more diversity and offers a space for voices that may have been sidelined to contribute.
Anyone with a phone, internet, and power source can edit. Editing and writing articles can be an empowering way to participate as a digital citizen and forge communities in the digital realm. To conclude, Wikipedia is only as reliable as its contributors. If more people (and significantly a more diverse range of people) learn how to use it correctly, add citations, avoid plagiarism, and present factual information in a non-biased way Wikipedia will continue to become a leading source of knowledge that is open and accessible to anyone with an internet connection.
If you are an educator who would like to use Wikipedia in your curriculum please reach out! Say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org.