the evils of wikipedia

I keep hearing from my academic colleagues that Wikipedia is problematic, faulty, and unreliable. The last time I checked, Wikipedia was judged to have 5 errors per article while the Encyclopaedia Britannica had only 3 errors per article. So if Wikipedia is so bad, why do we consider the Britannica to be a model?

Frankly, I would like to see student papers with only 5 errors. That would make my grading so much easier. I would also like to see scholarly books with only 5 errors, misstatements, or problematic conclusions.

I think the critique of Wikipedia is problematic. First of all, anyone who does scholarly research processes errors with a grain of salt. The author may have claimed to know something that turns out to be false. Knowledge at the time of the writing may fully support the error. These errors are forgivable, and we forgive them all the time. But, to accuse the author of intentionally deceiving the reader tangles the critic in an endless argument about intentions, which can’t be proven. There is a strong bias in our reading of factual, scholarly material that the author intends to tell the truth. The argument posed by the author may be good even though the evidence cited for it is faulty.

Second, though the material in Wikipedia is crowd sourced, it is nonetheless more than often vetted by multiple viewers. I read many summaries of arguments in Wikipedia and find them to be often useful. There are also summaries of materials I have read that I don’t necessarily agree with, that need modification, that need references and links. I would not know that without my expertise, and yet, the article may be useful even with the errors.

Third, if we are looking to Wikipedia for the whole picture, we are being unfair. Why should we expect more than it is able to provide, even though it provides a great deal? It has many resources not easily available in a library book or journal, and links to internet resources that include books and journals.

Fourth, the articles are uneven in treatment. That may be so, but there are also warnings on the pages to tell you if the arguments proposed need support, or editing to provide additional resources.

It may be a good starting place for research, resources, links, definitions, and catalogs of books and articles to be read. That’s a powerful argument for using it. It is not the only resource, but with our internet presence it is the most readily available one. In addition, it is a trivial procedure to get answers there. Most often, when doing a web search on some arcane subject, or a popular author, et al, the first link that pops up is wikipedia. Trying to get information from online school libraries, or libraries paid for by schools is a multistep process, often guarded by passwords and byzantine web portals. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be used for serious research. But if they should, it would be helpful to take the resistance away from the system, and require a password only when someone wanted to access a particular document after the search and preliminary investigation pointed in that direction.

For those who complain about the quality of the articles in Wikipedia, I have one suggestion: Get involved. It is often the experts who complain. I ask then, why they are not contributing? Yes, that was a rhetorical question.

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