Wikipedia: Trustworthy Reference or Flawed Experiment?
This post is not recycled, but it is a couple of years old; it was originally written as part of proving possession of near-native English proficiency during some relevant academic writing course. Someone on the Internet wrote that “Wikipedia is a load of rubbish and [doesn’t] always tell the truth and anyone can go on and edit the answers; I’ve been told about this at college by a few lecturers.” This reminded me of the following essay, which argues the opposite: Wikipedia can be useful and even trustworthy as long as you use it wisely.
On the night of February 8, 2009, an anonymous edit on German Wikipedia, in the article about the German politician Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, sparked the beginning of a controversy. Guttenberg gained an extra name: Wilhelm (Anonymous, par. 4). His full name is so extraordinarily long that the addition initially escaped the attention of Wikipedia’s editors, but they caught on quickly (Anonymous, par. 6). In theory, every fact on Wikipedia requires a source. However, that is what caused the problem. Since Guttenberg was to become the new Minister of Economics on February 9, the media all ran articles about him the day after the notorious edit, and, ironically, many used Wikipedia as a resource. While the additional name was considered suspect by Wikipedia’s editors, various newspapers were publishing it as fact (Anonymous, par. 7). Three days later, all the media had rectified their mistakes, and the article on Wikipedia was back to normal (“Wilhelm,” par. 5). Events like this keep casting a bad light on Wikipedia’s credibility. Even so, the number of factual errors in Wikipedia’s science articles is comparable to that of Encyclopædia Britannica. Furthermore, Wikipedia has no practical limit on the number and size of articles. Additionally, Wikipedia is a useful source of information. Finally, Wikipedia has a great deal of information that has no place in traditional encyclopedias. Wikipedia can be a reliable, comprehensive source of information.
Wikipedia is not significantly less accurate than Encyclopædia Britannica. According to Giles, Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica each had four serious errors when forty two articles were reviewed by experts; they were not aware from which encyclopedia the articles originated (par. 13). However, the quality and readability of Wikipedia’s writing often leave something to be desired (Giles, par. 15). For instance, in Wikipedia, scientific theories that are still the subject of controversy are given a nearly equal amount of attention as established theories, whereas Encyclopædia Britannica gives them little or no attention (Giles, par. 15). Wikipedia users not familiar with the subject might infer that the theories are equal, when they are not. An additional advantage of Wikipedia is that articles can be updated very quickly when new information is published. Therefore, it can potentially reflect recent insights and developments within hours, while changes and corrections to the information in paper versions can take years to update.
Wikipedia does not have the limitations of a paper encyclopedia. Consequently, in Wikipedia neither the number of potential articles, nor the length of articles, are bound by the physical constraints that limit paper volumes (“Wiki Is Not Paper,” par. 1). Articles on long subjects are frequently made into summaries of the most important points; there are links to in-depth articles in the relevant subsections (“Wiki Is Not Paper,” par. 6). One of the most intriguing implications is the fact that there can be a separate, detailed Wikipedia article for each character in a book, TV show, movie, etc. (“Wiki Is Not Paper,” par. 5). Furthermore, other media, such as images, can be implemented without additional costs, which typically restricts the usage of (colored) images in traditional encyclopedias (“Wiki Is Not Paper,” par. 16). Moreover, audio or animations can be added for further clarification and enhancement, which is impossible in print (“Wiki Is Not Paper,” par. 17). There are several other advantages to the electronic format of Wikipedia; for instance, words can be made into hyper links, which allows the user to immediately open articles for further clarification, or simply out of interest. Furthermore, the age of a person is always automatically calculated from date of birth (“Wiki Is Not Paper,” par. 18). There are quite a few other minor enhancements like that, but none of these advantages are as influential on the overall user experience. This does not, however, mean that Wikipedia does not apply traditional encyclopedic principles. It should be noted that there are also many things that are not possible in Wikipedia, like opinions and pure dictionary definitions, just as they are not in traditional encyclopedias.
Wikipedia is a worthwhile information resource: not just for random trivia, but also for scientific research. Its articles have greatly benefited from the introduction of the <ref> element in 2005, which is used for referencing sources. In April 2007, 30,368 references had already been made to external sources (Nielsen 4). Consequently, heavily referenced articles gain trustworthiness. Many references are to scientific journals: as Nielsen states, “the individual journals with the largest number of inbound citations from Wikipedia [are] Nature (787), Science (669) and New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) (446) … (number of citations in parenthesis)” (3). Wikipedia’s function is thus not only to provide a valuable summary of the information on a specific topic, but also provides ample opportunity for further research (Nielsen 4).
Wikipedia is more complete than Encyclopædia Britannica on subjects that are of moderate interest to a more traditional encyclopedia. For example, Encyclopædia Britannica’s article on Star Trek: The Original Series is 343 words long, vs. roughly six thousand words in the Wikipedia article. The article does not contain all of Wikipedia’s information about Star Trek: much more information is available on independent related articles. Wikipedia has, among other things, a list of all episodes, with a summary and other trivia for each episode, and an extensive article about the Star Trek theme tune. This demonstrates very well that Wikipedia is not a paper encyclopedia; nevertheless, it is unlikely that all of this information would be present in a traditional encyclopedia, even if paper constraints were not a concern. Wikipedia contains information regarding television series, movies, books, music and much more, which makes Wikipedia very useful to find information about a fictional character that might only be mentioned by name, if at all, in a traditional encyclopedia.
To conclude, Encyclopædia Britannica is not much more free of error than Wikipedia. Furthermore, the restrictions associated with paper do not apply to Wikipedia. In addition, Wikipedia is a decent research tool, and, finally, Wikipedia contains a good deal of information that cannot be found as easily and as comprehensively elsewhere. Therefore, Wikipedia is a good source of information for subjects that have a large, interested fan base and for science articles that have many references to respectable sources. If there is one thing that can be learned from Wikipedia’s occasional embarrassing mistakes, it is that any source should be examined with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Anonymous. “Wie ich Freiherr von Guttenberg zu Wilhelm machte.” BILDblog. 10 Feb. 2009. 10 Mar. 2009 <http://www.bildblog.de/5704/wie-ich-freiherr-von-guttenberg-zu-wilhelm-machte/>.
Giles, Jim. “Internet Encyclopaedias Go Head to Head.” Nature 438.7070 (15 Dec. 2005): 900-901. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Utrecht University, Utrecht, NL. 13 Mar. 2009 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=afh&AN=19171583&site=ehost-live>.
Nielsen, Aarub. “Scientific Citations in Wikipedia.” 1 Feb. 2008. 17 Mar. 2009. <http://arxiv.org/abs/0705.2106>.
“Star Trek.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 14 Mar. 2009 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/563557/Star-Trek>.
“Star Trek: The Original Series.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 14 March 2009, 13:02 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 15 Mar. 2009. <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Star_Trek:_The_Original_Series&oldid=277174592>.
“What Wikipedia Is Not.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 18 March 2009, 22:30 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 19 Mar. 2009. <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:What_Wikipedia_is_not&oldid=278220991>.
“Wiki Is Not Paper.” Wikimedia, Meta-Wiki. 19 February 2009, 00:00 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 15 Mar. 2009. <http://meta.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wiki_is_not_paper&oldid=1398243>.
“Wikipedia: Size Comparisons.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 31 January 2009, 02:50 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 15 Mar. 2009. <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Size_comparisons&oldid=267536315>.
“Wilhelm II.” BILDblog. 12 Feb. 2009. 10 Mar. 2009 <http://www.bildblog.de/5731/wilhelm-ii/>.