Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Wikipedia – Part I: Using Wikipedia for Research

Wikipedia is attacked often as a resource for inaccuracies. There have been studies done, however, that show it compares well to other encyclopedias. Of course, I recall being told as a college student that encyclopedias in general aren’t great reference citations. That’s because they’re secondary. Someone wrote the entry in the encyclopedia based on other sources. Go to those sources. That doesn’t mean an encyclopedia isn’t a good place to start research. And Wikipedia is no different in that regard. However, Wikipedia is a little different from the normal encyclopedia, in that it is constantly being edited, and it isn’t at first immediately clear at what stage of the editorial process a particular article is in. But there are ways to evaluate individual articles.

Whenever I am looking at a Wikipedia article for research purposes I:

1) Check to see if for the particular information I write down there is a source citation. I write that citation down so I can look that up later. Citations are heavily encouraged at Wikipedia, and an article that doesn't have them usually has a warning message on it at the top stating that the article lacks citations. (e.g. unfortunately, the entry on Genealogy) Particular facts within the article can also be labeled as needing a citation.

2) I look at the "History" of the article to see how old it is, and what the more recent changes have been. If it is a relatively new article, that decreases its reliability in my mind. The more people who have read it, and made changes to it, the more accurate it is likely to be. If it is a very new article, I may click on the names of the editors to look at their user profiles and see if they claim any expertise.

Due to recent controversies in this area, Wikipedia is now Wikipedia considered requiring people to submit proof of academic credentials to back up what they say on their user profiles. These proposals were ultimately rejected out of fear that it would lead to a less democratic system. Though while not required, more editors who do have professional experience will now provide some support of those statements on their profiles. While professionals are known to err at times, the knowledge that a professional worked on an entry does increase the odds that it is reliable. [paragraph revised due to blogger being a little sloppy and relying on memory of news articles over 8 months old.]

I also check the most recent edits to see if any of them impact the information I am interested in.

3) I look at the "Discussion" page to see if there have been any disputes over the content of the page.

Yes, this is more work. But these added steps do help one judge whether a particular article is reliable, and it is still quicker than going to the library. And if there is a source citation, I can take that to the library, and save a lot of time I would have spent there trying to find the information.

What people have to realize is that the editorial process that goes on at print encyclopedias goes on at Wikipedia too - it just happens live. There's no way to know at what point in the process the article is unless you check the history and the discussion page. Like many tools - Wikipedia is neither inherently bad or good – it depends upon how you use it


The above is edited slightly from a post I made recently to the APG-L list. I am not a professional genealogist, but I do subscribe to the list to hear the discussions of professional genealogists, and I occasionally contribute to the conversation when I think I have something of value to contribute. The subject of Wikipedia was raised, and I have had experience editing entries on the site, and I am a SysOp on a local St. Louis wiki.

Part II will focus on advice for the individual who wishes to edit an article. Anyone can.


Nihiltres said...

Actually, Wikipedia isn't requiring people to submit proof of academic credentials to back up anything: credentials alone are worth virtually nothing on Wikipedia, and I'm glad to say that. It is a credit to Wikipedia that they require the same thing of everyone: sources and citations. If you can't back up what you've said with a reliable source, it doesn't matter if you're an expert, because Wikipedia won't rely solely on any one person's say-so. I think that this is a good attitude - so-called experts are not magical truth fairies and have been known to be wrong on many occasions. :)

Aside from that little detail, I like how you're showing good form for use of Wikipedia as a resource in research: checking facts is what people seem to be ignoring nowadays - that we cannot simply go to just one book or just one encyclopedia, no matter how reliable, to be sure of information is lost in the myth of ""The Perfect Resource" with its divine light of Truth™. I'm glad to see that there are some people out there who can see it for the resource that it is, but simultaneously acknowledge its apparent weakness in that many articles simply haven't been completed and polished. Something that you might find interesting is the extension to MediaWiki that may eventually help tag quality versions of articles.

John said...

"Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said in interviews by phone and instant message Wednesday from Japan that contributors still would be able to remain anonymous. But he said they should only be allowed to cite some professional expertise in a subject if those credentials have been verified." ABCNews, March 7, 2007. (source).

This, and other news stories like it, is what I read back in March...but a little research suggests that all the proposals for such a system were ultimately rejected.

John said...

However, I didn't intend for the original wording to suggest that Wikipedia was requiring credentials to back up one's edits...only to back up what one said on their *user profiles*. That is, if you claimed to be a Professor of Nuclear Physics on your user profile, they were going to require some verification.

It looks, though, that they ended up abandoning that idea.