We’re told all through our school and professional life that if we are going to use sources never to trust the holy grail that is Wikipedia. I can guarantee that if you type in virtually any noun into Google Wikipedia will have a link on the first page. I even typed in “Wikipedia Unreliable” earlier and Wikipedia was the first answer! So the question is why is it treated with such disdain by most people in professional bodies and yet is the largest source of useful information (Google is the largest source of information but half of it I wouldn’t regard as useful) ever known to man?
I could see there being a slight conspiracy in order to damage Wikipedia’s credibility. It may sound silly but it seems strange to me that anyone buys reference books such as Encyclopaedias any more. When we have such a large and varied resource as the internet, which I know I have moaned about in the past but there is no taking away it’s usefulness for information, why would anyone who has the internet possible need to buy this sort of book. Much in the same way that ebook readers such as the Kindle are destroying the paper book market the Internet should have eradicated reference books by now as it has been in public use for far longer and is available pretty much anywhere you go. My theory is that these sort of books carry a sort of elite status that means people receive extra utility (economic word of satisfaction for those who don’t know) just by owning them. It gives weight to the theory that the whole stigma of Wikipedia being unreliable was just cooked up by the producers and consumers of reference books to make themselves seem holier than thou.
A common argument used against Wikipedia is that anyone can edit or publish it’s pages. What they are forgetting, which is a really important point, is that the Wikipedia community is so large that it’s moderation team can effectively eradicate any typos within minutes of their occurrence. I tried a test on this by editing a Wikipedia page a while ago. I made a small change to one sentence that reversed it’s meaning and despite being very well disguised it was removed within 5 minutes.
I’m not saying that this moderation team is perfect. For instance in a Geography lesson a couple of years ago an article about Mount St. Helens on Wikipedia referred to it’s location in a very lurid way about someone called “Tom”. This, however, is one of only a handful of mistakes I’ve ever encountered and I have used Wikipedia for a good proportion of my qualitative school work. A more common occurrence is in the sports page where potential player transfers are added before they’ve happened leading to spiralling rumours across sites such as Twitter. I would go as far to say that the number of errors you could find on Wikipedia would only be slightly more than in books and newspapers if you took it on a word by word basis and so there seems no reason to think that Wikipedia cannot be used as a reliable source.
In some cases it could be more reliable due to it’s editability. If a book is published with an error ad sold around the world then that’s it, nothing can be done to change the error and an important reference tool is not incorrect. On the Internet however, mistakes can be corrected in an instant and therefore these sort of mistakes can be eradicated.
I’ve read today that some people pay up to $1165 for a full paper Oxford English Dictionary and up to $265 a year to view the online version. This is ridiculous when there are numerous online dictionaries that probably use the same database. The more you delve into the world of information the more elitist it seems to get.