Settling an Argument Over Wikipedia

One of my colleagues forwarded me this email from her son in college. She had sent this around to the rest of our reference department as well, hoping to get answers from our staff. Her son writes:

Hey Mom, I’ve got a kinda silly reference librarian question for you concerning the validity and accuracy of an online information source. You see, my roomate staunchly vouches for the accuracy of information on Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia. His argument is that because of its large base of writers, and the enormous amount of information that those writers have, coupled with the fact that many of the writers watch after certain posts making sure that they update and protect the information that they are interested in, the information is as accurate and complete as any other legitimate, peer reviewed, edited online/printed source of information. My argument is that because Wikipedia is open to all persons that want to post, and that the majority of those that post are not experts in their field, coupled with the fact that there is no universal editor for the site, makes all of the information on the site, from trivial details about someone’s favorite band, to biological information about mice, suspect. I don’t necessarily mean in papers that we write for college, its obvious that I couldn’t use Wikipedia information for such purposes, however, I was telling Nick that I suspect the information on the site to the extent that I would be worried about citing facts/information in common conversation. You don’t have to answer in a wordy fashion, I was just wondering whether or not Wikipedia was potentially a reliable source of information for non-academic situations.

What do you think? If you have any input, please use the comment form. I promise to forward all opinions to my colleague’s son.

3 thoughts on “Settling an Argument Over Wikipedia”

  1. Like anything, if you want an informed opinion, you have to check multiple sources.

    That being said, Wikipedia itself is, and will always be, a work in progress. That is its very nature. And, while the Britannica might seem more accurate because it is centrally organized, you are only taking it in small chunks. Sure, this particular edition might be accurate the moment it is published, but soon, instantly in some cases, all 26 or so of those volumes become out of date.

    The beautiful nature of Wikipedia is that it is always releasing new editions, all the time. Check the history of each page–dozens of not hundreds of revisions for each page. And, theoretically, as the page is updated, its quality approaches 100% perfection, to infinity, baring the real world problems of vandalism and debates over content–debates which happen in a real world encyclopedia, but which the public will never see.

  2. I always find it interesting when information professionals start talking about Wikipedia. I’ll not bore you or he with a diatribe, but I will say: I trust Wikipedia just as much as I trust any source of information. That is, I verify via references/multiple sources any piece of info that I truly care about.

    That said, I think that wikipedia is, potentially, the best information source on the internet. It is the ultimate in peer-review (and god how I hate that term…it’s terribly elitist). It is the best possible form of information source: one that is democratic, and universally correctible by anyone with appropriate knowledge. Does that mean that it’s never incorrect??? No, but at least it can be fixed…unlike, say the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/10/24/nbiog24.xml&sSheet=/news/2004/10/24/ixhome.html)

    And where he says “I donâ??t necessarily mean in papers that we write for college, its obvious that I couldnâ??t use Wikipedia information for such purposes…” Well, I did. Matter of fact, I cited it extensively IN MY MASTER’S PAPER.

    That’s my take, as a reference/instruction librarian at a university.

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