Wikipedia (and other wikis) compared to traditional sources of information

This is an edited version of an essay originally written in June 2011. The original was about the role of Wikipedia, and wikis more generally, within a modern reference service (such as a library). Among other changes, this version has been edited to be about the use of Wikipedia etc. in research generally. In addition to the references, please also see the additional potentially relevant information.

Introduction

A wiki is a website that runs a specialised form of website management software, that allows quick and easy editing by multiple users. Wikipedia and other wiki based websites are commonly used to quickly find information on particular topics. However, due to the very nature of these resources, they can change rapidly and include inaccurate information (due to both malice, and mistake). Despite the potential problems, there are significant advantages in the use of these websites. In this essay I argue that, overall, there is little reason to reject the use of Wikipedia and more subject specific wikis while conducting general research, any more than 'traditional' encyclopaedias, or ordinary websites would be rejected.

Wikipedia

Wikipedia is a specialised wiki that aims to be a free-content encyclopedia project based on an openly editable model (“Wikipedia:About,” 2011).

Wikipedia, due to it's nature as a popular website with the wiki form (and allowing anonymous editors), has a number of advantages to its use for an information seeker. These include:

Wikipedia and 'traditional' sources

There have been a number of studies that indicate that Wikipedia is of a similar or only slightly worse accuracy to traditional encyclopaedias (see (Wikipedia contributors, 2011a) and (Wikipedia contributors, 2011b) from Wikipedia and the external references, and the heading "Wikipedia Is Quite Reliable" from (Fallis, 2008), and the references). Wikipedia does, however, explicitly disclaims any reliability (“Wikipedia:General disclaimer,” 2011). As pointed out though (“Wikipedia:Non-Wikipedia disclaimers,” 2011), many 'traditional' sources of information that publish on the web also expressly disclaim that the information provided is factual or without error. This includes both the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2010), and Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia BritannicaInc., 2010).

Wikipedia has a much larger number of articles, on a variety of subjects (compare Wikipedia with Britannica; Wikipedia has over 3,650,000 articles (“Wikipedia:About,” 2011) and Britannica has more than 120,000 articles (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011)1, see also (ParisTech Review, 2011)). Because of this large difference in the number of articles, it is often the case that Wikipedia will have information that traditional encyclopaedias do not.

Because of the similarities in reliability, and the difference in size (and thus coverage) between Wikipedia and other sources, I suggest that there should be little difference in the treatment between Wikipedia and traditional encyclopaedias.

Using Wikipedia

Because Wikipedia is a wiki, it is subject to change without notice. For this reason any citations on a particular subject should reference the exact version of the page used (available via the "Permanent link" text). As with traditional encyclopaedias, however, Wikipedia should not be used as a primary source unless discussing Wikipedia itself (as I have done in this essay) (Harris, 2007; Jaschik, 2007)2. However, I believe it can be treated as a first stop for research, and as a tool to provide an overview of a particular topic (Fontichiaro & Harvey, 2010), as with any encyclopaedia. I'll repeat myself, knowing that despite any recommendation that it not be used, or referenced, Wikipedia is likely to be used regardless (see for example, (Head & Eisenberg, 2010)), Wikipedia is merely an overview source, you should check the references and find a more reliable source for specific information.

Other wikis

There are a variety of different types of wikis on the web. Many of these are very specific, providing information and documentation about a particular topic (for example, a piece of software, a game, or television show). In many cases (though not those listed), these wikis maybe the sole or main source of information about that topic, in which case referencing them is required if discussing that topic. Obviously compared to 'traditional' sources of information in such cases, wikis are vastly superior (as any information is more useful than none).

Just because the source is a wiki, does not mean that the source is any more unreliable than any other website. It maybe that the wiki software is just being used as a website management system for the website, and user privileges are limited to a few people. It may also be that only a few users edit the wiki regardless, or that any contributions are carefully watched to remove incorrect information.

The usual website evaluation is more important to the question of whether or not the information is reliable, than if it is published using a wiki or not. This involves asking such questions as "is it current and up-to-date?" and "is it published by a reputable author or organisation?".

The place of wikis

Based on the above, I see that Wikipedia and subject specific wikis have a place in a reference service just as much as 'traditional' encyclopaedias or other websites. Wikipedia can be used to obtain a quick overview of a subject, and as a jumping off point for more research. In many cases information may only be found in a wiki (as mentioned above). In which case, so long as the material is reviewed as any other material on the web would be reviewed (checked for authoritativeness and currency etc.), and, if appropriate, is noted that the material came from a source that was a wiki, and the permanent link to the revision or version of the article used (if available) is included in the reference I cannot see a problem.

Conclusion

I agree with Fallis (2008), while Wikipedia may be slightly less reliable than Encyclopedia Britannica, it is arguably much more powerful, speedy, and fecund3.I would argue that Wikipedia, though it have have similar faults to the Hitchhiker's Guide, similarly has advantages that outweigh these problems. I see the place of Wikipedia in a modern reference service as the same as any other encyclopaedia. Other wikis also have a place in a reference service, the same as other websites more generally.

References

Bejune, M. (2007). Wikis in Libraries. Information Technology and Libraries, 26(3). Retrieved from http://proquest.umi.com/pqdlink?Ver=1&Exp=06-02-2016&FMT=7&DID=1473875011&RQT=309&cfc=1

Encyclopædia Britannica. (2011). Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved June 5, 2011, from https://safe.britannica.com/registration/freeTrial.do

Encyclopædia BritannicaInc. (2010, July). Terms of Use. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Corporate Site. Retrieved June 3, 2011, from http://corporate.britannica.com/termsofuse.html

Fallis, D. (2008). Toward an epistemology of Wikipedia. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 59(10), 1662-1674. doi:10.1002/asi.20870

Fontichiaro, K., & Harvey, C. (2010). How Elementary Is Wikipedia? School Library Monthly, 27(2). Retrieved from http://proquest.umi.com/pqdlink?Ver=1&Exp=06-06-2016&FMT=7&DID=2168311681&RQT=309

Harris, C. (2007). Can We Make Peace with Wikipedia? School Library Journal, 53(6). Retrieved from http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?index=0&did=1282655951&SrchMode=1&sid=1&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1307268633&clientId=22212

Head, A., & Eisenberg, M. (2010). How today’s college students use Wikipedia for course–related research. First Monday, 15(3). Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/2830/2476#12

Jaschik, S. (2007, January 26). News: A Stand Against Wikipedia - Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved June 5, 2011, from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/01/26/wiki

Oxford University Press. (2010). Privacy policy and legal notice : Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved June 3, 2011, from http://www.oed.com/page/privacypolicy/privacy-policy-and-legal-notice

ParisTech Review. (2011, February 18). It’s a Wiki, Wiki World: Wikipedia and the Rise of a New Mode of Production. It’s a Wiki, Wiki World: Wikipedia and the Rise of a New Mode of Production | ParisTech Review. Retrieved June 4, 2011, from http://www.paristechreview.com/2011/02/18/wiki-world-wikipedia-new-mode-production/

Wikipedia:About. (2011). Wikipedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:About&oldid=429782319

Wikipedia contributors. (2011a). Reliability of Wikipedia. Wikipedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Reliability_of_Wikipedia&oldid=432127331

Wikipedia contributors. (2011b). Wikipedia:External peer review. Wikipedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:External_peer_review&oldid=420944868

Wikipedia:General disclaimer. (2011, March 9). Wikipedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:General_disclaimer&oldid=417929921

Wikipedia:Non-Wikipedia disclaimers. (2011, May 31). Wikipedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Non-Wikipedia_disclaimers&oldid=431760051

Endnotes

1 Ironically, it is easier to find this number on the Wikipedia article for Britannica, than on the Britannica site itself.

2 That encyclopaedias should not be referenced in academic writing was something that was said to me over and over during my undergraduate degree.

3 A quote that reminds me of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the quote on the differences between the Guide and the Encyclopaedia Galactica:

In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker's Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects.

First, it is slightly cheaper; and second, it has the words "DON'T PANIC" inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.

Additional potentially relevant information

Bould, M. D., Hladkowicz, E. S., Pigford, A.-A. E., Ufholz, L.-A., Postonogova, T., Shin, E., & Boet, S. (2014). References that anyone can edit: review of Wikipedia citations in peer reviewed health science literature. BMJ, 348(mar05 4), g1585–g1585. doi:10.1136/bmj.g1585 Retrieved from http://www.bmj.com/content/348/bmj.g1585

Chesney, T. (2006). An empirical examination of Wikipedia’s credibility. First Monday, 11(11). Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1413

Konieczny, P. (2012). Wikis and Wikipedia as a teaching tool: Five years later. First Monday, 17(9). doi:10.5210/fm.v0i0.3583 Retrieved from http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3583

Lucassen, T., Dijkstra, R., & Schraagen, J. M. (2012). Readability of Wikipedia. First Monday, 17(9). Retrieved from http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3916

Wyatt, L. (2011). Wikipedia & Museums: Community Curation. Uncommon Culture, 2(1), 33–41. Retrieved from http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/UC/article/view/3851

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