There has been a great change in the reputation of Wikipedia in the two years since I started calling myself a Wikipedian. Two years ago, whenever Wikipedia was mentioned – particularly in the media, in academic circles, by the “intelligentsia” – it was accompanied by a snide remark or derogatory tone. Suddenly, though, I am hearing Wikipedia referred to as a valid source on the radio (even on Aunty ABC) and seeing it cited in such places as major metropolitan newspapers.
In May 2007, the month I started writing Wikipedia articles, its cofounder Jimmy Wales visited Australia and espoused its philosophy and value. In March this year, Microsoft announced that it will cease its online encyclopedia, Encarta. Its main reason was that Encarta’s popularity faded after the nonprofit Wikipedia went online in 2001. All this is wonderfully validating for we Wikipedians, but it doesn’t mean we should rest on our laurels – and it certainly doesn’t mean that users should use it blindly. As an analyst I quoted in my last post on Wikipedia says “Wikipedia has turned into a relatively reliable source of information on the the widest possible range of subjects because, on the whole, the good drives out the bad.” But there is still “bad” there.
Here are some quick tips for sorting out the good from the bad:
- check the footnotes/references: good Wikipedia articles cite their sources, not just as references at the end of the article, but in-line at the point statements are made.
- make sure the sources are valid: look at the domain names (such as dot gov and dot edu) and the authority of the person or organisation behind that source. Blogs, for example, are great to read but they are not necessarily a reliable source for an encyclopedia article.
- look for multiple sources: these can provide a double-check on statements made, particularly the more controversial ones
- check that the sources themselves don’t cite each other: circular referencing can be common in the on-line information world.
- look under the “Discussion” tab: this is where articles are assessed (though these are not always up to date) and where discussion about the article occurs – contentious issues, exclusion versus inclusion of information, definition of terms, etc, can be discussed here.
- look under the “History” tab: while many Wikipedia editors are anonymous or semi-anonymous, you can get a sense of who has been involved and the level of their activity and involvement.
- note any tags on the articles: editors tag articles that have problems, such as poor or no citation of sources, incomplete or minimal content, and so on. Some of this may be obvious but sometimes these tags can clue you in to how useful the article may be, where its weaknesses are.
The thing is that despite these caveats, most Wikipedia articles, even the very minimal ones, have something to offer. I regularly go to Wikipedia to look for links to external sites. It is sometimes easier to find a person or organisation’s home page, a town’s tourist office, or some other authoritative source, on the Wikipedia article than via a search engine – particularly in those situations where search engines throw up commercial sites ahead of the more content-driven ones.
In other words, Wikipedia rocks – but especially so if you know how to roll with it.