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Wikipedia vs Encyclopedia: The Search for Truth – Weekly #7

March 30, 2010
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Is Wikipedia Reliable?

If You’re The Republic of India, in a word, no.

The Supreme Court of India held in a recent  judgment that:

“We have referred to Wikipedia, as the learned Counsel for the parties relied thereupon. It is an online encyclopedia and information can be entered therein by any person and as such it may not be authentic.”

From this we learn not to get legal advice from Wikipedia, or hire anyone who would.

But on matters outside the court, the question of Wikipedia’s reliability is more complex.

Before delving into a real answer to whether or not Wikipedia is a trustworthy source, it is important to lay out The Research Commandment.

When your research is important, and you are going to cite it, use it in a business decision, or even repeat it at a dinner party without looking foolish, it is always best to follow the Research Commandment:

It is never a good idea to trust information from a sole source. It is better to confirm the research from multiple points.

So, can Wikipedia be trusted?

The short answer on Wikipedia is this: for some subjects, the published encyclopedia will have more accurate information – especially academic subjects. However, for business and technological subjects, Wikipedia is your best bet.

Why would Wikipedia do better in these instances?

For two reasons:

  1. Technology moves fast; often, it moves faster than a printed publication can keep up with. A published encyclopedia will not have tech data as current as Wikipedia. For example, Wikipedia currently not only has a wiki for Twitter, but has a sub-section on how Twitter is used for charitable giving. This new use is a very recent development in the microblogging world, spurred primarily by the earthquake in Haiti. A published encyclopedia may not even have a Twitter entry, and if they do, it will certainly not include information on how the service has been used for charitable giving. So, if Facebook implodes look to Wikipedia for the latest and greatest information.
  2. Technological people like writing about technology: and they know a lot about it! Many people who are actively contributing to Wikipedia are technologically savvy individuals who are interested in tech and business news and developments and who are knowledgeable about these subjects. How do we know? By the fact that they are online creating and editing Wikipedia pages. This is not to say that everyone who contributes to Wikipedia falls into this demographic, but the statistic is skewed by the fact that you need to know basic HTML to do these tasks.

For scholarly work that needs to be cited, for a paper or an assignment at work, a published encyclopedia is a better source of information. Why?  Encyclopedias work with thousands of contributors and advisers around the world who are all paid scholars and experts. This does not mean that encyclopedias are without error, which points us back to our Research Commandment (multiple search points for information!). But, it does mean that the information is more likely to be accurate because Wikipedia is open to anonymous and collaborative editing.

What about those studies about how Wikipedia and Encyclopedias are basically the same?

Scientific journal Nature reported in 2005 that for scientific articles Wikipedia came close to the level of accuracy in Encyclopedia Britannica. However, this “study” was very shoddily done. According to Nature’s description of the study, 42 pairs of articles on scientific subjects, from the Britannica and Wikipedia respectively, were reviewed by outside experts, mainly academic scientists. Reviewers “were asked to look for three types of inaccuracy: factual errors, critical omissions and misleading statements.

Yet, one Nature reviewer was sent only the 350-word introduction to Encyclopedia Britannica’s 6,000-word article on lipids to compare to Wikipedia’s entry, and another received an article titled “ethanol” not from the Encyclopedia Britannica but from Britannica Student Encyclopedia, a basic book for kids.

Wikipedia is the fist one to tell readers to fact-check information found on its site, in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has no sympathy for college students who failed on papers because they cited Wikipedia.

Which leads us back to the Research Commandment: whether you are looking something up on Wikipedia or on an Encyclopedia, find multiple access points for the information. Wikipedia does a good job of sourcing facts at the bottom of the articles – most in hyperlink form. Before citing or repeating a fact, click on that link and read about it for yourself from the source.

Double-checking is never a bad way to go!

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