Loving and Hating Wikipedia

Posted by Somebody's Mother on 9:24 a.m. in , ,
Wikipedia was founded in 2000 to be a free online encyclopedia in which anyone could contribute information. When interviewed on CBS founder, Jimmy Wales commented, “I mean, writing an encyclopedia as a hobby is obviously a fairly geeky thing to do. The real core thing that people believe in is free knowledge. So people can copy or modify it, redistribute it."

His belief that knowledge should be freely distributed has grown like a weed and the search engine Google has helped. If you don’t believe me, try it yourself. Search anything from rain to corn to Barak Obama on Google. The Wikipedia article on that subject will come up near the top of your list. To prove this to myself, I just typed the word Obama into Google and the Wikipedia article on Obama was third to the top.

No wonder elementary and high school students love Wikipedia. Who needs to go to a multi-volume encyclopedia and struggle with the alphabet when in two clicks of your mouse, you can have the information that you need for that pesky school project? Is this such a bad thing?

No…and yes. Wikipedia is great when it’s right and it usually is. According to one study done by the journal Nature in 2005, Wikipedia was only slightly less accurate than the Encyclopedia Britannica. It averaged about 3.86 errors as opposed to Britannica’s 2.92. (Britannica did argue that the study was flawed.)
For looking up a quick fact, Wikipedia is great. When you want to know who the youngest president of the United States was or which album I Want to Hold Your Hand was on, Wikipedia is a fast way to get these answers. For more intricate search questions, the quality of writing can get in the way of comprehension. One teacher that I met at a conference expressed the opinion that the writing on Wikipedia is often over most students’ heads.

The problem with Wikipedia is that there is very little editing or proofreading. When I looked up the singer, Rickie Lee Jones on Wikipedia, I found an extremely poorly written article rife with grammatical errors and typos. As for fact checking, it’s a catch-as-catch-can situation. Other Wikipedia writers can correct each other’s articles.

This open editing can lead to vandalism. In one famous case, comedian Stephen Colbert changed an article in the course of his show and said that, “…any user can change any entry. And if enough other users agree with them, it becomes true." In another case, former Kennedy advisor, John Seigenthaler, Sr. was accused of being involved in Kennedy’s assassination. This was quickly corrected but other articles continue to be attacked. Birth and death dates have also been found to be incorrect.

Young people are often tempted to plagiarize text from Wikipedia into their essays as it’s so easy to copy text from Wikipedia and paste it into a Word document within seconds however the vocabulary almost always gives them away.

My verdict on Wikipedia is that it’s a great source of information but you should always look further. Other web sites can be far more reliable than Wikipedia and can be used to back up what Wikipedia has to say. If you’re a parent arguing with your child about using Wikipedia for a school project, just let your child know that a teacher will be far more impressed if they use a book (remember books?) as a source too. Books that are targeted toward a child’s age group will also be easier for them to understand.

Like it or not, Wikipedia is here to stay and as with anything else on the Internet, using it right will save time and may just help you win that argument that John F. Kennedy was the youngest president elected to office. Now go find out who the youngest president actually was.



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