Wikipedia took the original vision of the open web and went one step further to ask the question: What if everyone on the web came together to create an open encyclopedia? With that, Wikipedia was born. Chances are you use Wikipedia often. It ranks as the top result in many Google searches and can serve as a fantastic resource for providing background information on a variety of topics.
Who Creates Wikipedia?
Wikipedia is a crowdsourced encyclopedia, which means anyone can create and edit Wikipedia entries. This is both a strength and a weakness. One of the most fundamental ways the scholarly community determines the reliability and authority of information is by knowing the scholarly or professional credentials of authors. Wikipedia articles are usually not signed in any way – at least, not with real names. You can’t tell who the authors or editors are or what qualifies them to write on the topic, if they are qualified at all. In the same way, anyone can discuss, contribute to, or challenge the content of any Wikipedia entry.
One study found that a majority of the over 58,000 Wikipedia contributors who responded to a survey were in their early- to mid-twenties and male. The highest degree earned by 45% of contributors answering the survey was high school or less. Twenty-six percent of contributors reported having an undergraduate college degree; 19% had a Masters degree, and less than 5% held a Ph.D. The main motivation for contributing to Wikipedia was that they “like the idea of sharing knowledge and want to contribute to it.”
Given this, it’s not surprising that Wikipedia is often an excellent source of background information on a wide range of current popular topics: anime, extreme sports, social networking, video games, popular music, movies, TV shows, and so on. It can also be a good place to find background information on a wide variety of topics, including academic subjects. A number of studies have evaluated the information provided in Wikipedia on various subjects, and for the most part Wikipedia has passed the test. When it comes to more advanced and detailed subject knowledge, coverage and reliability may differ. Original research and ideas, theories, analyses, and interpretations – the type of information that university students typically need for assignments and papers – are not included at all in Wikipedia. Thus, it’s unlikely Wikipedia will be a good source for finding original research.
Wikipedia does an admirable job of evaluating its own strengths and weaknesses on its About page. It’s interesting to note that the strengths and weaknesses alike are linked to the fact that Wikipedia is “…open to anyone, has a large contributor base, and its articles are written by consensus.” Unless you yourself are already an expert on the topic you’re reading about, there’s no way to quickly verify the accuracy of a Wikipedia article without consulting a number of other sources on the subject.
How should you use Wikipedia? Wikipedia itself suggests it be used only as a starting point and not an end. It can be used to learn vocabulary or technical terms for a topic you’re not familiar with, and find citations to reliable sources such as scholarly books and articles.
- Glott, Ruediger, Philipp Schmidt, Rishab Ghosh. Wikipedia Survey: Overview of Results. United Nations University, Collaborative Creativity Group, March 2010. Available online: https://web.archive.org/web/20110728182835/http://www.wikipediastudy.org/docs/Wikipedia_Overview_15March2010-FINAL.pdf ↵ ↵