Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Wikipedia - Using Wikipedia for Research (repost)

This is an edited and updated version of an entry posted in December of 2007

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 taught as a high school 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. Particular facts within the article may 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.

Wikipedia at one time 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

I also check the most recent edits to see if any of them impact the information I am interested in.  If this is new information, I'll see if I can verify it elsewhere.

3) Finally, 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. (I will first check to see if the book has been scanned in Google Books, and if not, I will check WorldCat to find the nearest library that has a copy of the book.  I'm lucky to live nearby several good university libraries as well as a strong public library system.)

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 nor good – it depends upon how you use it

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