The other day, while I was in a history lecture, I was surprised to hear the professor essentially endorse Wikipedia. To paraphrase, she was surprised that the website had a strong definition of “fascism,” a term which she had looked up on several other sources on our behalf. She apparently found the definition up to snuff with the phrasing from other, traditionally reputable sources and put it in her lecture notes.
My whole educational career, (starting in earnest from around middle school, when online research became more important to homework) I had heard the same adamant warning: “Don’t use Wikipedia as one of your sources!”
Despite this common educator’s sentiment, I always found a way to use Wikipedia; if nothing else, it was a starting point for my research. After all, I’ve always found Wikipedia to be a perfectly valid source — its threefold system of easy public access for editing, citations and defenses against vandalism make it as good a place as any to get information.
A little bit of history: Wikipedia was started on January 15, 2001 as a site for online collaboration (a “wiki”) in assembling a compendium of human knowledge (an encyclopedia). This means that the site has, from its beginning, emphasized input by the average internet user. Even someone who does not have an account with the site can make a change if they want. This means that even a technologically challenged person can (probably) edit some minor grammatical error when they see it and thus make a useful contribution to the site. Indeed, this policy enables millions of potential editors to help improve the quality of the site.
The information on Wikipedia is usually very accurate, thanks to the enforcement of citations in articles. If you pull up a typical Wikipedia page, you will see the equivalent of a “works cited” section at the bottom. There are a variety of links, which can be followed to their source, and also indicate where in the article that particular information is used. Since the links in a Wikipedia article generally lead to a combination of news sites, primary sources, essays and online academic sources, the information is as reliable overall as what you can read in a print encyclopedia, which is a similarly good place to start one’s research.
Not only that, Wikipedia has glaringly obvious banners on pages where information is questionable. If there are no inline citations (though there are works cited at the end), or a lack of citations or any other issue with verifying the facts on a page, the cadre of dedicated Wikipedia moderators will mark that. This means that only rarely is Wikipedia truly unviable as a tool; at most, a little caution makes the site the best go-to resource on the web.
The internet being what it is, there will always be trolls out there to mess up pages. Wikipedia is not immune to their chaos either, and for every helpful edit made, there is likely another being made to disrupt users’ access to information. The website has experienced everything from inclusion of false information to covering pages in profanity.
To protect against these, Wikipedia has several defense mechanisms, such as a policy of reviewing articles when edited and the presence of active editors who moderate the site. Though these measures cannot prevent trolls from trolling, they allow two things: reliable detection of vandalism and rapid repair of damaged pages. Though occasionally hoaxes survive for months, various kinds of inaccurate Wikipedia pages get fixed very quickly because someone is always on the internet. Therefore, the content of Wikipedia pages is, on the whole, of a quality fit for research.
I understand the fear teachers tend to have for Wikipedia; the idea that anyone can contribute to a site surely means that a random anarchist can cripple its value for research by putting lies or other internet chaos on it. Nevertheless, it should be clear to educators by now (if they tried to learn about the site, at least): the people — all volunteers — who work to run Wikipedia take the job seriously, and won’t let it go to the dogs if they can help it. Their labor allows us to have the greatest place on the internet to learn about, well, anything.