Thursday, October 6, 2011

Risks of relying on Wikipedia as your main source of information

Being a student involves doing lots of research and essay writing.  You will undoubtedly encounter Wikipedia many times when you search for information online.  Whilst Wikipedia is a good idea in theory, in reality it is never a good idea to use it as your chief source of information.  The main reason for this is that information uploaded to Wikipedia can be edited by anybody, regardless of whether they have knowledge of the subject or not. Whilst some of the content is very good, it is generally frowned upon in academic writing to use it as a source in your assignments.

Peter Denning et al outline some of the reasons you should approach Wikipedia with caution:

Accuracy: You cannot be sure which information is accurate and which is not. Misinformation has a negative value; even if you get it for free, you've paid too much. 

Motives: You cannot know the motives of the contributors to an article. They may be altruists, political or commercial opportunists, practical jokers, or even vandals

Uncertain Expertise: Some contributors exceed their expertise and supply speculations, rumours, hearsay, or incorrect information. It is difficult to determine how qualified an article's contributors are; the revision histories often identify them by pseudonyms, making it hard to check credentials and sources.

Volatility: Contributions and corrections may be negated by future contributors. One of the co-authors of this column found it disconcerting that he had the power to independently alter the Wikipedia article about himself and negate the others' opinions. Volatility creates a conundrum for citations: Should you cite the version of the article that you read (meaning that those who follow your link may miss corrections and other improvements), or the latest version (which may differ significantly from the article you saw)?

Coverage: Voluntary contributions largely represent the interests and knowledge of a self-selected set of contributors. They are not part of a careful plan to organise human knowledge. Topics that interest the young and Internet-savvy are well-covered, while events that happened ``before the Web'' may be covered inadequately or inaccurately, if at all. More is written about current news than about historical knowledge.

Sources: Many articles do not cite independent sources. Few articles contain citations to works not digitised and stored in the open Internet.

Here some good sources that explains this further:

Some good alternatives to Wikipedia are listed here:

It is not fair to say that all the content on Wikipedia is not of an academic standard. Rather you should approach it with caution and, like with every source of information, critically evaluate what it says before accepting what it tells you. Check the bibliographic references at the bottom of the page to see where the article is sourcing its information. Verify what you found out on Wikipedia by consulting other sources – books, journals, newspapers etc.

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