Ask any high school teacher or college professor and they’ll be more than happy to talk ad nausuem about how Wikipedia is the devil. ”Wikipedia is like a disgusting, graffiti covered bathroom wall,” proclaimed my history professor from last semester. ”So why would you believe things scribbled on a bathroom wall?” My anthropology professor took things a step further. ”Wikipedia is owned by Microsoft,” he explained to my class. ”They’re a for-profit organization that often hires under-qualified high school and college kids to write their articles. Why, just a few years ago there was a huge scandal where this seventeen year old kid was getting paid to write all these Wikipedia articles, and they were all riddled with factual errors. So no, Wikipedia is not ever a valid source for information.”
While most teachers aren’t as horribly wrong about Wikipedia as my esteemed anthropology professor, most of them adhere to the belief that Wikipedia is inaccurate simply because anyone can add, subtract, or alter the information contained in the website’s 4 million articles. After all, if I wanted to I could log onto Wikipedia right now and change the page on Barack Obama to say that he was born in Kenya and can shoot laser beams out of his eyeballs. So logically if everyone and anyone has the power to edit Wikipedia like that, then the website must certainly be filled with bullshit and dangerous misinformation, right?
That argument leaves out a few small details though, like the fact that Wikipedia has an army of full time volunteer editors who eagerly sit at their computers all day and night just waiting to revert even the most tiny but inaccurate edits on the site. I cannot tell you how many times I have made a stupid troll edit on a Wikipedia article only to have my work reverted literally five seconds later. Furthermore, pages and articles that experience a lot of vandalism tend to be locked and only editable by actual Wikipedia editors and not just random drunk people trying to be funny. So basically even if I did want to change Obama’s Wikipedia entry to say that he is actually a Reptilian space wizard sent to destroy humanity, I wouldn’t have the permission to do so. To top it all off, Wikipedia requires all information to be properly cited, so even if I had the proper credentials to alter Obama’s locked entry, I would first have to find some sort of official source that backs up my edit claiming that the President runs an illegal European garlic smuggling ring.
So maybe the fact that anyone can edit on Wikipedia isn’t that big of a deal, but the website is still totally filled with inaccuracies and misinformation, right? Well, yes and no. In 2005 the scientific journal Nature published a study which sought to compare Wikipedia with the Encyclopedia Britannica, which is generally considered to be the gold standard when it comes to encyclopedias. The experiment was fairly straightforward: Nature took 50 scientific articles from both sources and then had them evaluated by relevant experts for accuracy (the experts were not told which articles were from Wikipedia and which ones were from EB). The results, however, were somewhat surprising. Out of the usable data Nature concluded that the Wikipedia articles had 162 errors and problems, compared to 123 for the Encyclopedia Britannica entries, which statistically seemed to indicate that the online encyclopedia was very close to the traditional medium in terms of accuracy.
That’s not to say that Wikipedia is not without its flaws. Subtle inaccuracies, as opposed to more obviously incorrect information, may go unnoticed for long periods of time by Wikipedia’s editors. Plus when you consider how massive Wikipedia is along with the incredible amount of user traffic on their servers, there are bound to be some glaringly incorrect tidbits buried away among the site’s millions of articles. And yes, every once in a while some scandal will break about a biased editor within Wikipedia’s inner circle or some politician attempting to alter their pages, but these events are few and far between (they are, however, very well documented by Wikipedia on the site’s page about its reliability).
But do these shortcomings warrant the sensationalist warnings about Wikipedia’s reliability that we are so accustomed to hearing from our professors? Absolutely not. The reality is that Wikipedia is probably the best starting point on the internet for writing a research paper. Should you write an entire paper using nothing but Wikipedia? Probably not. But that’s not to say that Wikipedia isn’t an excellent way to gain some general background knowledge on a subject or to find links to more “valid” sources. In a lot of cases I would even say that Wikipedia is an acceptable source itself, especially for general knowledge. I shouldn’t have to search an online database to find a journal entry stating that Hitler hated the Jews just to appease a citation-crazy professor like my anthropology teacher who has it stuck in his head that nothing on Wikipedia is factual simply because he doesn’t understand how the site actually works.
It should be noted that we were assigned one major research paper, accounting for 10% of our final grade in that anthropology class. My chosen topic was modern Zulu society, and after getting tired of tediously sifting through an online database looking for relevant information, I decided to take the sleazy route and just use Wikipedia to write my paper and then use Amazon search to find books with relevant sounding titles that I could “use” as sources. I got a 100 on that essay, the only person in my class to do so, and on the grading rubric my professor wrote that I had used some excellent facts.