How reliable is a Wikipedia citation?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Aug 06, 2014 GMT
Bruce Byfield

"I don't trust it," someone wrote when Wikipedia and its reliability was discussed on Facebook recently. One or two others added that, for them, a Wikipedia citation immediately discredited an article. I was surprised by these old school sentiments, having imagined that familiarity had years ago blunted contempt, and Wikipedia now had at least a reluctant acceptance.

Not that Wikipedia hasn't had its share of dubious episodes, with contributors accepting payment, and editing wars that can change the reliability of an entry from hour to hour. At times, the conflicts have become so heated that some entries have to be protected, so that just anyone with a grudge or a need for self-justification couldn't edit them.

Moreover, even when such controversies aren't involved, the usefulness of Wikipedia varies wildly. Some articles are frankly listed as stubs, acknowledging that they are worth a proper article, but that no one has got around to them yet. The value of other articles depends very much on who writes them.

Clearly, crowd-sourcing an encyclopedia is not the magic solution that early enthusiasts imagined. Still, while acknowledging that fact, I also have to add that neither is single authorship.

The user and the source
When I was in high school, I had access to several leading encyclopedias, including the Americana and the Britannica. In my earlier grades, I had found all of them highly addictive; looking up a single topic regularly lead to hours reading adjacent topics.

However, shortly before I graduated, I did a report on political theories. I knew little about political theory, yet even in my inexperience I couldn't help noticing that the articles in some of them were less than even-handed when discussing topics like socialism or feminism. While the articles weren't so heavy handed as some of the books from the 1950s that showed charts comparing how long average Soviet and American citizens needed to work to buy certain consumer items, the tone was hostile, and there was a noticeable lack of arguments in favor of some political theories.

Even at the time, I thought this bias moderately heavy-handed. Now, I consider it irresponsible. I imagine that a more neutral approach might have damaged sales to schools in conservative parts of the United States, but I still expect people writing educational tools to have some dedication to truth. But I concluded that even the hiring of experts and copy editors did not necessarily make an article written by one or two people trustworthy -- any more than such working precautions can make Wikipedia reliable today.

Wikipedia does do some things well. If you want an explanation of a past or present meme, like "all your base are belong to us" or the use of "Not!" at the end of a statement, I know of no better source. You can also count on Wikipedia for  episode by episode coverage of Buffy and other popular television shows, even if the summaries are sometimes so literal-minded that they are frequently beside the point and unintentionally humorous.

Entries about free software technologies and their developers also tend to reliable, possibly because free software advocates are used to the idea of contributing to group projects. In fact, when writing articles, I frequently cite Wikipedia as a handy link so that I can use a technical term without more than a few words of definition. Without such a source, the narrative of many of my articles would be far more digressive.

However, even in these cases, I am careful to compare the citations I am about to use against my own knowledge. When I don't trust my own knowledge, I check the recent history of the article to see if I recognize the Wikipedia contributors who wrote it, and check the facts against other online sources. As for other topics, the less I know, the more careful I look for other articles on the same subject.
Sometimes, of course, other articles are not enough. One of the downsides of free licenses is that many sites copy and paste their information directly from Wikipedia. For example, thanks to a Wikipedia typo, on countless sites a local First Nations story has Raven's brother conjuring up a giant frog for him to get lost in,m instead of a giant fog.

However, the point is, before citing, I would do exactly the same thing for any other encyclopedia -- in fact, for any source that I was considering using. Writers are responsible for the reliability of their sources, and should not assume reliability to save themselves work, although I'm sure that both Wikipedia and Britannica online do their best to eliminate errors, given the resources available to them. If I use a source that proves unreliable, the fault is entirely mine.

In other words, how Wikipedia articles are written is beside the point. What matters is their reliability, just as it is for any other source. If anything, studies over the years suggest that Wikipedia is at least as reliable as other encyclopedias, and sometimes more so. In cases where it is unreliable, the failure is not the nature of Wikipedia, but the irresponsibility of the writer who used a source without checking it. In this respect, Wikipedia is no different from any other potential source.

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