The Benefits and Drawbacks of Wikipedia
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Wikipedia
In the 21st century, with access to the internet widespread and readily available, there is perhaps no single source of information that has become more commonly used, and more debated about, than Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. This website, edited by community members, boasts articles on just about any subject of any notability. The problem is that a great many people assume that everything on Wikipedia is true and accurate and use it as their go to for information on anything they don’t already know about. On the flip side of the coin, Wikipedia has been roundly criticized by academics and other professionals for being inaccurate, out of date, and incomplete in its information and they routinely point out the fact that people can, and have, edited articles with deliberately false information.
From my point of view, being a 24 year old academic, is that both stances are more or less correct. If you know nothing about a particular subject, Wikipedia is a good springboard into the topic giving you both a good background and often a place to look for more detailed information. Once you start getting into specifics and details, however, the articles on Wikipedia are often inaccurate, incomplete, and very often out of date with current academic trends. You should always check the history of the article to see if it has recently been heavily edited. You should also never cite Wikipedia without some kind of independent verification of its information and if you have that, you don’t need to cite Wikipedia at all.
Wikipedia is at its most useful when you know absolutely nothing about the subject that you are looking up. The reason being that Wikipedia is generally good on basic information about the topic, namely the who, what, where, when, how of whatever person, place, event, or thing you are researching. One should always be careful, of course, and use some common sense, and if necessary check the editing history in case the page has been defaced, but generally such general information is perfectly trustworthy and reliable. While the defacement of pages has gotten wide publicity it is rare despite being such a vast website and the ease with which editing is done and it is usually blatantly obvious, and is often corrected within minutes. Along with being a good source of basic information on something which you know nothing about, it is also a useful reference point. There are a number of topics on which Wikipedia’s articles are long, detailed, and thorough.
From an academic point of view, I still often find Wikipedia a good first place to start when I am starting a new paper or project. The reason being that a great many articles on Wikipedia have at least some citations to works on the subject and those works give me something to start looking for and reading in doing my own research. Thus, while I would never cite Wikipedia itself, for reasons I will go into later, it is a good way to start researching. Starting a new project can often be daunting, especially if, for one reason or another, you know nothing of the topic. Wikipedia can give you a way of narrowing down and homing in on specific sources, or ideas, that it otherwise might take a long time to find. It is for these reasons that I consider Wikipedia to be a good source of general information.
Where Wikipedia’s articles often have problems, however, is on specific details, explanations for how or why things happen, and their importance. Such things are often matters of complex interpretation, if not simple opinion anyway. Thus, while Wikipedia is often quite useful for general curiosity on a subject, it is ill suited for any kind of academic paper, report, or work. The simplest of which rely on analysis and interpretation rather than simple facts. It is for this reason that I am in favor of forbidding the citing of Wikipedia for such papers and projects and I never do so myself.
Another rather more insidious problem with Wikipedia is its self-proclaimed mission of providing ‘common knowledge’. The problem with this is that the editors and moderators of Wikipedia will often not permit an article to be edited to contain up to date information and ideas because those new ideas are not ‘common knowledge’. This means that on many subjects, the information, particularly things pertaining to details and interpretations, is years if not decades out of date.
In my personal opinion, Wikipedia a useful and useable source of general information, and often a good way of getting some ideas and a start on research. However, the information on Wikipedia is often incomplete, inaccurate on details and explanations, and sometimes out of date. As such, it is not suitable to be used as a source for any work or project in an academic setting and in general I would council against putting too much stock or emphasis in the conclusions found there. However, it is far from as useless as academics often claim it to be.Google+