By. Robin Satty, Ed.D.
Although Wikipedia is one of the most visited sources of information on the internet, students are frequently told that it is unreliable and shouldn’t be used as a source. Should we trust it?
Ironically, if you ask Google “Is Wikipedia reliable?”, the first result is a Wikipedia page called “Wikipedia is not reliable”. However, the page is not exactly what it sounds like. It’s actually a notice to Wikipedia contributors that they can’t cite Wikipedia on Wikipedia. You can find more information about the flaws in the collaborative encyclopedia at “Why Wikipedia is not so great”. The main argument here is that anyone can edit anything, so there are plenty of opportunities to add inaccurate or disorganized information.
That said, it’s not quite so simple to edit anything. If you opened a random page one day and made an edit, you’d need someone to review it before publishing. If you’re a frequent contributor, your edits may appear automatically, but they’re still reviewed. They check up on those citations.
Wikipedia is actually pretty particular about citations. All information must include a citation of an actually reliable source, like an academic journal or expert opinion. Information without a citation is either clearly labeled or removed entirely. So, anyone could edit anything, but unsupported edits will probably be removed pretty quickly.
According to Wikipedia itself, “Edits on Wikipedia that are in error are usually fixed after some time. However, because Wikipedia is a volunteer-run project, it cannot constantly monitor every contribution. There are many errors that remain unnoticed for hours, days, weeks, months, or even years. Therefore, Wikipedia should not be considered a definitive source in and of itself.”
Interestingly, independent research of Wikipedia speaks more highly of its accuracy. Wikipedia is about as accurate as any other well-known encyclopedia. Its bad reputation may be historical bias against non-traditional sources of knowledge.
Wikipedia does have one pretty reliable use: it’s a great source for sources. Search for a page, read the page, and then click through the citations to read from the original primary sources! You (or your kids, or your students) can find a whole list of reliable sources on any topic pretty quickly.
If you have the time, always click through to the original sources. If not, Wikipedia is a pretty reliable source for a lot of information anyway.