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Jigsaw pieces

This is an article about Wikipedia [citation needed]

In academia there is a hierarchy of acceptably scholarly and rigorous sources. The precise nature of this hierarchy varies from discipline to discipline, but some fundamental rules apply:

  • Generally, the peer-reviewed journal article (or in some cases the research monograph) is the staple source - the results of an academic’s research have been collated into an article which has then received scrutiny from fellow experts in that field in order that it reach a suitable standard for publication.
  • Systematic reviews, collating the outcomes of the existing literature on a topic in order to establish a greater truth, may be even more highly valued (for instance in medicine).
  • Textbooks are considered of lesser value: while they can provide a potentially in-depth overview of a topic, they are one-removed from the original published research, will lack detail on specific aspects, and may be distorted by an author’s gloss.

Very low down the hierarchy come dictionaries and encyclopaedia, but they are, nonetheless, still on the list. They are especially useful for background reading, and may sometime serve in academic writing as a means of defining accepted terminology.

The articles you will read on this course are not high-end academia, but they are informed by academic research, and as such you will be seeing links to a range of sources spanning the full hierarchy. This includes encyclopaedia, because very often, a simple overview serves as a perfectly good starting point for further learning. And one encyclopaedia turns up quite a lot…

Wikipedia has a poor reputation in higher education, largely as a consequence of it having been used by students in place of the more appropriate scholarly sources mentioned above. But for a course on digital society, Wikipedia is an especially appropriate source, because in many ways Wikipedia is a shining example of a digital society gone right.

Wikipedia began life as a digital anarchy of sorts: a self-policing encyclopaedia to which anyone can contribute. You can even make edits semi-anonymously (showing only as an IP address). There’s no incentive to take part other than the philanthropy of helping to create one of the most used and useful information resources on the internet, and there’s no ownership of the text other than the collective ownership of the Wikimedia Foundation charity under a CC-BY licence (and we’ll be looking at what that means next week). Error correction and peer review of the text is everybody’s responsibility, and conflicts are resolved by a team of administrators who are just ordinary users appointed to have extra privileges.

Wikipedia, then, is basically an empty canvas upon which people have chosen to work together online to create a functioning and ever-growing encyclopaedia. The first intelligent response to hearing of its model is “well, that’ll never work”. It should be a mess of lies, vandalism and vendettas. And yet it isn’t. Certainly, it has its share of such things (see Wikipedia’s own catalogue of edit wars, for instance), but for the most part Wikipedia has been able to develop into a surprisingly reliable source of information, partly because recent changes are so well scrutinised, but also partly because many writers have to work together, pooling wisdom, to reach an accepted definition or explanation.

So how accurate is Wikipedia? A study by Nature in 2006 put Wikipedia head to head with Encyclopaedia Britannica and found similar numbers of errors in both (162 in Wikipedia with 4 considered serious, against 123 in Britannica and likewise 4 serious). A 2011 study by Reavley et al found that:

The quality of information on depression and schizophrenia on Wikipedia is generally as good as, or better than, that provided by centrally controlled websites, Encyclopaedia Britannica and a psychiatry textbook.

Other studies of scientific articles have found similar levels of reliability, though most express caution (Azer’s 2014 “Evaluation of gastroenterology and hepatology articles on Wikipedia”, for instance, found several limitations, deficiencies, and scientific errors). Miller and Murray, writing in 2010 on the use of Wikipedia in courts of law, note that:

…nonscientists can edit scientific articles, adding errors and mistakes, but later nonscientist editors might not know enough to catch the mistake.

They do however propose that:

…it is appropriate to cite Wikipedia when it is suitable to cite the wisdom of the crowd. The wisdom of the crowd is an appropriate and valuable reference when consensus itself is at issue, the information is generally known, or the content is easily verifiable.

In her 2014 piece “To use or not to use?: The credibility of Wikipedia”, Stefanie Hilles adds:

“Allowing Wikipedia to be used for basic facts, general knowledge, and easily verifiable content makes sense. Information gained can be checked for accuracy by triangulation with other reliable sources.”

As such, we’ll be referencing Wikipedia throughout this course. And if you find anything on there that you know to be wrong, remember: anyone can edit Wikipedia. So go ahead and correct it, and ideally add a citation to support your correction.

If you want to go further, Wikimedia’s own citation hunt tool is a great way to get involved with editing Wikipedia: it gives you a statement from Wikipedia that is in need of a citation and challenges you to find something to support it. Other ways of getting involved include finding a way to link to an orphaned article from an existing one. For more tips and advice, take a look at Wikipedia’s primer for newcomers.

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This article is from the free online course:

Becoming a Digital Citizen: an Introduction to the Digital Society

University of York

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