Opinion: Wikipedia as a scholarly source: More reliable than you might think

By Jadyn Vizcaino-Bishock
Jersey City, NJ

To the academic world, Wikipedia is synonymous with unreliable information. But that’s not really the case.

The major problem people have with Wikipedia is that anyone can edit any page on the website. This leads to misconceptions that the site is full of lies and exaggerations. However, these faults are the natural result of democratizing information.  

Wikipedia has established a structure for editors for exactly this reason. While anyone can edit a page without registering, they can’t create a new page or edit restricted pages, and they are known on the website by their IP address. After someone creates an account, they become part of an extensive system that rewards those who edit frequently with more trust and responsibility.

While technically anyone can edit an article and insert a lie, there will always be someone else with more privileges who can fix the article. Other contributors can see edits that occur on a page; they can check the page’s history or activity on watchlists and they can correct any errors they find. Another feature of Wikipedia that allows discussion among its users is the Talk page on each article. Contributors are able to discuss how to make the article better.

Throughout Wikipedia’s almost two-decade lifetime, several studies have looked at the reliability of the website’s content. A study conducted by IBM in May 2003 found that most vandalism on the site was repaired within minutes.

However, a more recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota in 2007 concluded that while 42 percent of false edits are repaired almost immediately, “there are still hundreds of millions of damaged views.” According to a Wikipedia page titled “Reliability of Wikipedia,” in 2008, Loc Vu-Quoc, a professor at the University of Florida, said, “Sometimes errors may go for years without being corrected, as experts don’t usually read Wikipedia articles in their own field to correct these errors.”

Wikipedia is a nonprofit website that runs solely on donations. All users on the website edit and create pages in their free time. Vu-Quoc’s statement that experts don’t correct Wikipedia articles in their field may be a result of the reality that they don’t have enough free time to do so, while others with more time are not necessarily experts.

While many people think the idea of anyone editing Wikipedia’s articles makes it unreliable, it is also what makes Wikipedia uniquely democratic. Wikipedia’s main competitor, Encyclopedia Britannica, ended its print edition in 2010. In a 2012 interview with CNN, Encyclopedia Britannica’s president, Jorge Cauz, said that the end had been coming for a while. “The younger generation consumes data differently now, and we want to be there,” he said.

Wikipedia has been instrumental in this changing landscape of data consumption. While Cauz didn’t cite Wikipedia as a direct cause of Britannica’s switch to digital, younger people are more likely to consume information online.

Throughout the over 200 years of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s publication, it has only used a total of 4,411 contributors, including 110 Nobel Prize winners and four American presidents, as well as experts in individual fields. Wikipedia, meanwhile, has more than 30 million registered users, with more than 100,000 active users in the past month. The English-language Wikipedia has more than 5.4 million articles, while the last print edition of Encyclopedia Britannica had more than 40,000 articles. While Encyclopedia Britannica Online has more than 120,000 articles, it still does not compare to the expansiveness of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is also a free source of information, while Encyclopedia Britannica products are not cost-effective for most people. Before the internet, people were expected to buy each edition of the encyclopaedia if they wanted the most recent and accurate information. The online version relies on a subscription system.

Of course, even people who don’t trust Wikipedia for their research are likely relying on it anyway. Just take any sentence from a Wikipedia article and copy and paste it into Google. You will likely find another site with the same wording.

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