Wikipedia: half a chance it's true
The first return from the Google Search with the key words “Wikipedia history” is a link to the Wikipedia page titled “History of Wikipedia.” The Google search was intended to return reliable articles or websites about how wikipedia arose to be one of the most popular websites in the world. Thus, the question behind the search for the history of Wikipedia must be answered sooner than planned. Is Wikipedia reliable? This question has been posed since the early years of Wikipedia, and as Wikipedia celebrates its tenth anniversary, it may be time to decide what role exactly Wikipedia plays in society. What was Wikipedia’s intended role and what is the future of Wikipedia? Of course, in education, the essence of this question actually involves whether or not students can site Wikipedia as a source. Those that argue against the use of Wikipedia as a source claim that anyone can edit so the reliability of Wikipedia is poor. However, when researchers have delved into this issue, not many errors are found. Regardless of the results of a research project about Wikipedia or the traditional views of some teachers, in real time, it comes down to a 50/50 chance that what a reader sees is correct or not. With those odds, Wikipedia should definitely not be used as a source in education, but rather as a way to gain an overall understanding of a new topic in order to research further.
Wikipedia was originally co-founded by Jimmy Wales and Lawrence Sanger in January of 2001 (Fletcher, 2009). It was birthed as a side project to help progress a different type of online encyclopedia called Nupedia. In the early months of planning Nupedia, Wales originally wanted to create a free and collaborative encyclopedia, and he recruited Larry Sanger to head the project (Sanger, 2005). The process of putting articles on Nupedia involved collecting academic articles from scholars and then putting these through excruciating peer-review mainly done by experts in their field (Fletcher, 2009). However, because of this review process, Nupedia produced about 24 articles in one year (Sanger, 2005). With this limited success, Sanger decided to attach a wiki page to Nupedia where contributors could jot down ideas and communicate in hopes that Nupedia would turnover entries more quickly. However, for political reasons, the wiki page was moved to its own separate web page and donned the title, Wikipedia, in 2001 (Sanger, 2005).
Wikipedia was largely successful during its initial exposure on the internet. In January 600 articles were posted and by May 3900 pages were on Wikipedia (Sanger, 2005). Wikipedia’s trajectory from side project to one of the most popular websites in the world is due to a couple simple reasons. For example, the fact that the information is free to the world elicits a feeling of responsibility in contributors. Generally, people will work hard if they believe that they are being read by thousands of people (Sanger, 2005). The openness of the website, ease of editing and radical collaboration all contribute to the success of Wikipedia, according to its co-founder, Sanger.
From the beginning, Wales and Sanger agreed that they wanted to establish a “neutrality policy” in that all entries were not allowed to represent one view on controversial subjects (Sanger, 2005). This policy has not changed for Wikipedia. In fact, the first entry on the “Rules to Consider” page is “Ignore All Rules” - later referred to as the essence of Wikipedia (Sanger, 2005). With this type of government (essentially an anarchy), of course rebels were going to emerge. Early problems that Wikipedia experienced were some vandalism and difficult contributors. There was no sense of “high moral ground” in the early years of Wikipedia, any yet any deletion of a page by Sanger was received with an outcry from the public; after all, anyone was supposed to have the right to edit. Any form of action that was meant to maintain the policy of neutrality or not representing one’s own research was also met with strong resistance. As a consequence, Wikipedia’s environment grew to be strangely competitive rather than cooperative (Sanger, 2005). Therefore, analytically it seems that Wikipedia was in a rage; it was an entity that was driven and sustained by people who felt that Wikipedia belonged to the people. It was their right to edit or add what they liked.
Thus Wikipedia did not start off on the good side of academia, and of course academics will doubt Wikipedia’s reliability. Many different types of research studies have been conducted in order to determine the accuracy of the content on Wikipedia. The question of the reliability of Wikipedia is a question, ultimately, in comparison to other sources. Therefore, to spread some light on this question, Nature, a science magazine, performed an expert-led study on the reliability of Wikipedia in comparison to Britannica encyclopedia. Nature randomly selected 50 topics in the scientific fields from each encyclopedia. Each encyclopedia’s entry on the topics were sent out to be peer-reviewed by experts in the field, but the reviewer did not know which article came from which source. Eight major misinterpretations of concepts were spotted in total - four for each encyclopedia. The reviewers were also responsible for spotting more simple factual errors or misleading statements. They returned that 162 errors were found in Wikipedia and 123 were found in Britannica (Giles, 2005).
From a different angle, Dartmouth researchers conducted a study to determine whether the type of contributor is indicative of the accuracy. They studied the Good Samaritan contributors to Wikipedia, the people who anonymously and infrequently post, compared to the people who loyally update pages or post new ones. They found that Good Samaritans are reliable contributors, and this in itself tells us something about human nature (Knapp, 2007).
Hand in hand with the idea of frequent and infrequent contributors Wikipedia ironically has some built in security systems that allow loyal contributors to track the activity of infrequent editors. For example, any page contributor can use the “watch” button to keep track of any changes that are made to the article. This allows experts to be notified whenever edits are made so that they may monitor the accuracy of their postings. Of course, there is always the chance that vandals are doing the same thing, but often vandals are less persistent than the experts (Sanger, 2005).
Despite these efforts, many high school teachers are literally banding together in order to resist the use of Wikipedia by students (Olanoff, 2007). They claim that “the best way to use Wikipedia is to get a global picture of a topic...it’s not a primary source,” (Olanoff, 2007). In fact, the convention in high school is that Wikipedia cannot be used as a source. However, the consensus among students, and grudgingly admitted by faculty, is that Wikipedia is a great resource in finding resources. Reading a Wikipedia page saves time in searching for relevant articles on a certain topic.
Wikipedia is far reaching and ever present. According to the Wikipedia start page, Wikipedia has over 3,852,000 articles just in English. It has a total of 78 million articles spanning 283 languages. It is a great phenomena in of itself, but I must admit that I am not convinced by the various research studies that have been conducted on Wikipedia’s accuracy. Sure, people are frequently checking the pages and there is a certain likelihood that someone posted accurate information and another probability that a vandal visited the page. I think that when it comes down to it, however, Wikipedia’s accuracy actually relies on human nature. Do we blatantly ‘screw the next reader over’? Well, it depends on who is reading and writing. Therefore, to simplify things, at any given point in time, there are two characteristics that the information in a Wikipedia article can have: true or false. So, basically there is only half a chance that the information on Wikipedia is true. We students can use it as a resource for our own knowledge - with a grain of salt (or maybe a handful). Students should be using Wikipedia to gain a global idea of a topic. They should look into the resources that Wikipedia cited and explore those, too. Yet, remember there’s half a chance that the information on the page is accurate.
Fletcher, Dan. “A Brief History of Wikipedia,” TIME Business. 2009
Sanger, Larry. “The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir.” Open Sources 2.0: The Continuing Evolution. O’Reilly Media: 2005.
Giles, Jim. “Internet encyclopedias go head to head.” Nature. 438, 900-901December 2005.
Knapp, Sue. “Dartmouth researchers confirm the power of altruism in Wikipedia.” Dartmouth News. Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs: 2007.
Olanoff, Lynn. “School officials unite in banning Wikipedia.” The Seattle Times. 2007.
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