The Wikipedia Debate

One of the best known ‘Web 2.0’ tools is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia in which anyone can contribute, write or edit entries.It fits in well with the sharing and collaborative nature of Web 2.0.  The only problem is that it isn’t necessarily a reliable source of information.  Some examples that highlight the potential problems associated with anyone being able to edit entries include:

  •  In March 2007, actor and comedian Sinbad was reported to have died from a heart attack
  • In 2005, the biography of writer and journalist John Seigenthaler Sr. was edited to say he may have been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.  While completely false information, the edits went unnoticed for approximately 4 months.
  • In 2005, Ray Charles entry was vandalised with a racial slur.
  • The entry for George Bush has been protected from edits due to repeated vandalism
  • The cheese entry has been protected from edits due to repeated vandalism

Many secondary and post-secondary institutions discourage use of Wikipedia, or require additional, more reputable online sources of information to be used in addition to Wikipedia.  Recently, a college in the U.S. banned the citation of Wikipedia in academic work. 

As a Teacher-Librarian, I talk to students about how to critically evaluate websites, and we always talk about Wikipedia (I will allow it, but not on its own).  Even if I provide students with a list of great websites to visit in their research, many of them turn to Wikipedia anyway.  When asked what was so great about Wikipedia, a student replied to me, “it’s easy to read and understand, the way they explain stuff… I like the layout – I can find what I am looking for really quickly.” 

I like Wikipedia, and given that it is usually one of the first 5 hits on any given Google search, I often start my research there (where I can get an overview or introduction to a topic).  A key point I make to the students is that you always need several sources of information when doing research (you should be able to corroborate your findings).  If they have ever thought of using a single source of information (i.e. Wikipedia), I show them spoof websites, such as the pregnant man, the tree octopus, and the mountain walrus websites.  All sites seem genuine, but all are completely false.  Point being, if they questioned their results and did further research, the way you should if you are using Wikipedia, then you should turn up false information. 

You could argue the future of Wikipedia is uncertain.  A new “Wikipedia” named Citizendium (the citizens’ compendium of everything) has been launched, and claims to address issues of verifiability by having editors.  Will Internet users make the switch to Citizendium? Will Wikipedia slowly fade away?


One thought on “The Wikipedia Debate

  1. Debate on Wikipedia is interesting, apparently it has the same error rate as the Encyclopaedia Britannica!

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