Wikipedia: An Underrated Academic Resource

Introduction

Wikipedia has been regarded as “one of the iconic sites of the Web 2.0,” [9] “the king of online references,” [7] and “the connected world’s go-to reference source.” [6] As of December 2014, the online encyclopaedia contained more than twenty-six million articles in over 250 languages. [3] In addition, it is “consistently ranked in the top ten of the most popular websites in the world.”[9] However, academics have long been critical of Wikipedia’s credibility as an academic resource. Even today, the “Harvard Guide to Using Sources” includes a page outlining what the university thinks is “wrong with Wikipedia.” The information on this page reiterates the most common objections to the online encyclopaedia’s accuracy: anyone can contribute to it; the expertise of contributors is not evaluated; the information may be outdated; and the entries are not reviewed by experts. [2] Nevertheless, there is evidence that suggests an increasing shift in the attitude of some academics in favour of Wikipedia. For instance, a 2013/2014 study conducted at four California State University campuses found that their faculty’s perception has shifted in favour of Wikipedia over the five-year period preceding the study. [3] This paper will argue that this shift in perception is happening for good reason due to the potential of the Wikipedia model to produce high-quality content and provide an open-access publishing venue for academic content.

High Quality Peer Production 

Wikipedia is an excellent example of the kind of effective commons-based peer production that Yochai Benkler discusses in his book The Wealth of Networks. He argues that the development of the Web 2.0 and the networked information economy has been accompanied by a “rise of effective, large-scale cooperative efforts – peer production of information, knowledge, and culture,” which people participate in for personal gratification and not just capital gain. [11] Accordingly, Wikipedia owes its success to its “Wikipedians” – the huge community of people who volunteer to contribute to it. It has the huge advantage of benefiting from their cumulative knowledge. As Cass R. Sunstein writes in Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge: “The involvement of many people ensures that Wikipedians are able to produce a much more comprehensive resource than a small group could, even a small group of experts.” [4] Thus, Wikipedia’s success exemplifies the potential of peer-produced content.

The quality of Wikipedia’s content has been favourably evaluated by various studies based on its comprehensiveness, currency, readability, and accuracy. [9] Due to the broad range of topics covered in its millions of entries, Wikipedia is considered to be “one of the most comprehensive sources in existence” [9] and has been recognized as “the most serious online alternative to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.” [11] In fact, Wikipedia has proven to be comparable and even superior based on certain measures of quality. For example, its “live, continuous online publishing model” allows it to have an unprecedented level of currency that is even generally unmatched by Britannica. [9] With regards to readability, a comparative study of Wikipedia and Britannica’s online entries found no significant differences in such quantitative measures as lexical density and the length of sentences and words. [9] Furthermore, a famous expert-led study carried out by the reputable scientific journal Nature in 2005 concluded that the accuracy of Wikipedia science entries is comparable to those of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Similar amounts of inaccuracies were found in both encyclopaedias, with the average Britannica entry containing around three errors and the average Wikipedia entry containing around four. [5] Considering that “the reliability of Wikipedia articles has generally improved over time” [9] and ten years have passed since this study was conducted, it’s fair to assume that today’s Wikipedia content is even more accurate.

Arguably, the two most important quality assurance mechanisms that Wikipedia has in place are its verifiability policy and community of dedicated Wikipedians. By requiring contributors to support their additions with citations to trustworthy external sources, Wikipedia is not only improving its reliability, but also helping ensure that articles are written based on verifiable facts or perspectives and not just personal opinion. [9] Any errors that do make it onto Wikipedia are usually rapidly corrected by the huge numbers of volunteers that are constantly revising its pages. [4] Thus, continuous real-time editing doesn’t only benefit Wikipedia’s currency, but inevitably its accuracy as well.

Alternative Venue for Academic Content

The popular use of Wikipedia by students, as well as the general public, should motivate academics to help improve its accuracy by contributing their expertise to it. Among Harvard’s objections to the online encyclopaedia is that its articles are generally neither written nor reviewed by experts. [2] The obvious way in which to address this concern is by getting experts involved. Aside from formal academic publishing, contributing to Wikipedia could help academics proliferate high-quality academic content on a platform that’s freely available to everyone – including those who cannot afford the cost of higher education. Some of those in academia are already working towards making this a reality.

Charles Matthews, a former Cambridge University math professor, has already edited more than 200,000 pages on Wikipedia. [7] Meanwhile, at Imperial College in London, a group of faculty and students has come together to “start legitimizing Wikipedia as a research source” by working to improve the content of its articles. [7] However, perhaps most impressively, in 2011 Harvard University Professor Mahzarin R. Banaji started an initiative to encourage the 25,000 members of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) to work towards improving the thousands of psychology articles on Wikipedia. [8, 1] She wants to ensure that the discipline is represented “as fully and as accurately as possible and thereby promote the free teaching of psychology worldwide.” [8] Soon after this project was launched, the American Sociological Association began a similar initiative based on the APS example. [10] Hopefully this will become a trend that will encourage academics in other disciplines to do the same.

Conclusion

Considering its huge size and popularity, it’s fair to assume that Wikipedia is a massive publishing project that isn’t going anywhere and cannot be ignored. In her book Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, Kathleen Fitzpatrick writes that: “Failing to engage fully with the intellectual merits of a project like Wikipedia, or with the ways in which Wikipedia represents one facet of a far-reaching change in contemporary epistemologies, is a mistake that we academics make at our own peril.” [6] It’s clear that all academics should start approaching Wikipedia more favourably. As detailed above, many studies have already confirmed the free online encyclopaedia’s quality and reliability, which can be even further improved with time. The Wikipedia model provides an excellent peer production platform that academics and students can utilise to publish high-quality content for anyone on the internet to access. It’s encouraging to see that some academics and initiatives are recognizing this potential and working towards shifting perspectives in Wikipedia’s favour. In the future, Wikipedia may become not only the most widely used, but also the most trusted, academic resource by students and educators alike. 

References

  1. “APS Wikipedia Initiative,” Association for Psychological Science. http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/members/aps-wikipedia-initiative
  2. “What’s Wrong with Wikipedia?” Harvard University. http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k70847&pageid=icb.page346376
  3. Aline Soules, “Faculty perception of Wikipedia in the California State University System”, New Library World (2015), Vol. 116 Iss 3/4: 213–226. http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/NLW-08-2014-0096
  4. Cass R. Sunstein, Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). https://global.oup.com/academic/product/infotopia-9780195189285?cc=ca&lang=en&
  5. J. Giles, “Internet Encyclopaedias go head to head,” Nature (2005), Vol. 438 No. 7070: 900-901. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html
  6. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (New York: NYU Press, 2009) http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/
  7. Liz Dwyer, “Could the Days of Wikipedia Being a Banned Research Source Be Over?” Good, March 25, 2011. http://magazine.good.is/articles/could-the-days-of-wikipedia-being-a-banned-research-source-be-over
  8. Liz Dwyer, “Harvard Academic Starts Initiative to Boost Accuracy of Wikipedia’s Psychology Articles,” Good, June 2, 2011. http://magazine.good.is/articles/harvard-academic-starts-initiative-to-boost-accuracy-of-wikipedia-s-psychology-articles
  9. M. Mesgari, C. Okoli, M. Mehdi, F. Å. Nielsen, and A. Lanamäki, “The sum of all human knowledge: A systematic review of scholarly research on the content of Wikipedia,” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology (2015), Vol. 66: 219–245. http://spectrum.library.concordia.ca/978618/1/WikiLit_Content_-_open_access_version.pdf
  10. Piotr Konieczny, “Rethinking Wikipedia for the Classroom,” Contexts (2014), Vol. 13 No. 1: 80-83 http://ctx.sagepub.com/content/13/1/80.full.pdf+html
  11. Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006) http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/wealth_of_networks/Download_PDFs_of_the_book

One Reply to “Wikipedia: An Underrated Academic Resource”

  1. This essay brings some attention to the highly controversial topic of Wikipedia as an academic source. The topic is a favourite among professors/teachers and students, who perennially argue whether students can use Wikipedia in their reference lists. While the studies cited in this piece are current, and the debate certainly continues, the arguments against Wikipedia feel dated. This is likely a personal bias on my part, as someone who has wholeheartedly embraced open science and believe that commons-based production can be in many cases superior to the traditional mode of knowledge production. It may be that I simply wish the conversation would move beyond this point, when in fact, it hasn’t.

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