September 22, 2010


Due to my love of 21st century literature, I often find myself surfing the web for author facts and/or facts about the particular book I am currently reading. Almost always at the beginning of every google search, Wikipedia is staring one in the face. I have a feeling that I am not the only one with this issue--or habit--but, as many know, that in the world of academia, Wikipedia is strictly a no-go. Not a legitimate source. But is it? I have complied some sources and a few pages of general information about Wikipedia and it's legitimacy, which may essentially change one's mind.

Created in the year 2001, it is no doubt that the online encyclopedia Wikipedia has created buzz, both negative and positive. While Wikipedia has recently bubbled over with more than 3 million entries, 3,421,445 printed in English according to the site as of now, also bubbling is the wonder of how accurate the booming website actually is. While Wikipedia allows for absolutely anyone to edit and create articles, newspapers and other news organizations have been contemplating just how reliable the information actually is when it comes to adding Wikipedia’s information to their prevalent articles.

Wikipedia’s creator Jimmy Wales worked hard to try and create the perfect web-oriented encyclopedia. According to Dan Fletcher’s article, “A Brief History of Wikipedia,” when Wales’ first design, Nupedia, failed because all of the information was written by experts and peer-reviewed, which essentially took too long to publish, Wales bettered this idea by letting anyone with internet access create articles without an editorial review. After Wikipedia was launched in 2001, a tremendous amount of problems occurred, such as vandalism and article accuracy concerns. Wales has since created many solutions to the latter problems, but a lot of the public is still weary of the posted information; some though, think this revolutionary encyclopedia is helpful.

Wikipedia’s tremendous growth since 2001 has created a buzz with news organizations regarding the website’s validity. Stacy Schiff, author of “Know it all: Can Wikipedia Concuer Expertise?” is in awe when it comes to the amount of Wikipedia articles the site has to offer. “The Encyclopaedia Britannica, which for more than two centuries has been considered the gold standard for reference works, has only a hundred and twenty thousand entries in its most comprehensive edition,” she states. How can an internet sensation outdo one of the most prevalent encyclopedias of all time? Easily, some may say.

The opinion on the topic of the Encyclopaedia Britannica versus Wikipedia is also shared by Fletcher, he states that, “a 2005 study by ‘Nature’ found that Wikipedia's science entries came close to matching the Encyclopaedia Britannica's in terms of accuracy — with 2.92 mistakes per article for Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia — no one argues that Wikipedia's content is flawless.” The information is indeed not flawless, but maybe the popularity of the website coincides with its availability of an abundance of articles. Fletcher believes that some of the content in Wikipedia indeed is reliable, and the number of articles posted on Wikipedia far outweigh the number of articles the Encyclopaedia Britannica has to offer. But does the number of entries prove that Wikipedia is better? Schiff believes that amount of articles is not always the more reliable source, and in this case, definitely not. She poses the question: “what can be said for an encyclopedia that is sometimes right, sometimes wrong, and sometimes illiterate?”

Google would disagree, believing there is a lot to be said of Wikipedia and its information. According to the article “Google Starts Including Wikipedia on Its News Site” by Noam Cohen, the famous search engine’s homepage is now including links to Wikipedia at the bottom of major news articles. Cohen offers up an explanation to this via Google spokesman Gabriel Stricker. “We saw users were finding the Wikipedia pages to be helpful complements to so many stories they saw,” he says. Stricker also explained that Wikipedia offered a broader view of topics covered on their news site. While Wikipedia may compliment news articles with opinions and ideas posted on the site, news organizations are still fighting with the idea of citing the infamous site in articles.

While the validity of Wikipedia has been questioned since its launch, prominent news organizations, such as The Wall Street Journal, have been flagged for citing Wikipedia as a source. Donna Shaw, author of “Wikipedia in the Newsroom” says that, “while the line ‘according to Wikipedia’ pops up occasionally in news stories, it’s relatively rare to see the user-created online encyclopedia cited as a source. But some journalists find it very valuable as a road map to troves of valuable information,” and that is exactly what The Wall Street Journal did. According to Shaw, a Journal reporter wrote an informative article on “turducken” and found useful information on the topic, most of which was used in a humorous fashion.

Humor is also an aspect to the use of Wikipedia as a source. Wikipedia is known to have an array of askew and exceptionally ineffective information, making the site the place to go to find out about wacky information. Schiff explains some unique information she has come across on Wikipedia. “A list of historical cats (celebrity cats, a cat millionaire, the first feline to circumnavigate Australia), a survey of invented expletives in fiction, instructions for curing hiccups, and an article that describes, with schematic diagrams, how to build a stove from a discarded soda can,” was just some of the odd information Schiff. But, this humorous information can add doubt to any serious information researcher’s mind, especially since—according to Fletcher—Wikipedia’s article on Star War’s Creatures is more than 15,000 words long, and the entry on World War II barely breaks the 10,000 word mark. With this in mind, does it make sense for news organizations to cite Wikipedia’s information in their articles? Some still believe so.

Many other news organizations have cited Wikipedia in their articles as well—humorous or not—and whether it is deemed acceptable depends on that organization’s policy. According to Donna Shaw’s article, “Citing Wikipedia,” in 2007 the Arizona Republic cited Wikipedia while writing on Congressman Rick Renzi’s background; John Leach, managing editor for news and digital media at the Arizona Republic stated that, “our point in using it [a Wikipedia citation] in the story was that the limited Wikipedia listing about Renzi shows how little was known about his background.” Leach then said that the paper decided not to use the online encyclopedia as a primary reference any longer, but use it as an initial starting point in their stories.

Shaw then explains that adapting the same idea as the Arizona Republic is Michigan’s Flint Journal, who also used Wikipedia when finding background information, but the Flint Journal was looking up facts on fantasy football. Editor Tony Dearing said, “we do not have a formal policy [on using Wikipedia as a source], but we are working on one and will have it soon. Trained journalists have better resources available to them than Wikipedia. I'm not satisfied that the accuracy of Wikipedia uniformly would meet the standards that we want as a paper.” While information is easy to find on Wikipedia, sometimes it’s too easy to find, and this can very much be a threat to news room article accuracy.

The trend of Wikipedia as an untrustworthy source, if a legitimate source at all, is continued with The Courier-Post in New Jersey. Shaw tells of an article written on food that included the definition of satay, which the author found on Wikipedia. Geoff O'Connell, metro editor, explained that, "we are pretty much of the mind that it can't be used as any kind of final, primary source. That occasionally depends on the subject matter. It can be of as much guidance as anything else on the Internet. I think things would have to move pretty far down the road for us to change our minds.” While skepticism seems to be coloring news rooms across the nation, this phenomenon poses the question: who considers Wikipedia legitimate?

The academia world has been weary of student’s use of Wikipedia as well, but The Carleton College confesses the site does have its advantages. Clearly stated on the Colleges Library webpage is the College’s view of the site. “It is easy to access online for free. Articles are often added quickly and, as a result, coverage of current events and new technology in particular is quite extensive. Printed encyclopedias can take years to add new entries and those entries may not cover a topic in as exhaustive detail as those in Wikipedia” the college site explains. More so, the College’s site also includes the idea that “many of the articles in Wikipedia are long and comprehensive, and many entries exist in Wikipedia for which no equivalent entry may be found in any other encyclopedia.” So while many, or most, colleges stray or forbid the use of Wikipedia as a source all together, the Carleton College seems to embrace the idea of the site, but of course, warn the students to proceed to the information with caution.

Regardless of the ideals of the Carleton College, the staff at the New Scientist correspond with most news rooms in the fact that they too are skeptical of Wikipedia, and they are not yet an organization that feels the website is legitimate. The staff of the New Scientist magazine created the article “Wikipedia's Quality Under Threat,” which explains that with the number of articles available on the site going up, so are the amount of editors, meaning that information is being altered more than ever by more people than ever.“The team has found that occasional editors, those who make just a single edit a month, are finding it harder to shape articles. One in four of their changes is undone. In 2003 the ‘revert’ rate was 1 in 10. The ‘revert’ rate for editors who make between two and nine changes a month has grown from five percent in 2003 to fifteen percent today,” explain the staff writers. This, they believe, is evidence of the growing amount new information on Wikipedia, which lowers the sites content value even more.

It is evident, and almost certain, that there will always be a debate on the validity and credibility of Wikipedia. Does one use this as primary source or just a stepping stone? Does one cite Wikipedia in an academic paper—such as this piece has? It seems that opinions on the matter vary greatly, and probably will for all time. Wikipedia describes themselves on their site as “not only an encyclopedic reference but also as a frequently updated news resource because of how quickly articles about recent events appear.” But the site is well aware of its criticisms by explaining that their “departure from the expert-driven style of the encyclopedia building mode and the large presence of unacademic contents have been noted several times.” This explains that whether one deems Wikipedia as an acceptable source is mere opinion, but the departure of the site is nowhere in sight, and that is one statement involving Wikipedia that possesses validity.

My Works Cited (not in correct MLA format):

Cohen, Noam. "Google Starts Including Wikipedia on Its News Site." The New York Times. 22 Jun 2009. New York Times, Web. 23 Nov 2009.

Fletcher, Dan. "A Brief History of Wikipedia." Time. 18 Aug 2009. Time Inc., Web. 9 Dec 2009.

Schiff, Stacy. "Know it all: Can Wikipedia Conquer Expertise?" The New Yorker. 31 Jul 2006.New Yorker, Web. 23 Nov 2009.

Shaw, Donna. "Citing Wikipedia." American Journalism Review. Feb/Mar 2008. University of Maryland, Web. 9 Dec 2009.

Shaw, Donna. "Wikipedia in the Newsroom." American Journalism Review. Feb/Mar 2008. University of Maryland, Web. 23 Nov 2009.

Staff. "Wikipedia's Quality Under Threat." New Scientist. 08 Aug 2009. New Scientist, Web. 24 Nov 2009.

"Wikipedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 9 Dec 2009. Wikipedia Foundation Inc., Web. 9 Dec 2009.

Zawistosky, Ann. "Using Wikipedia." Laurence McKinley Gould Library. 02 Oct 2007. Carleton College, Web. 9 Dec 2009.

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