I have mixed feelings about Wikipedia. Maybe that makes me unique, as it seems most people think either too highly of it, or give it zero respect. In its early days, I was a top-1,000 contributor. But I have serious problems with the site. So why is Wikipedia not a reliable source? Let’s dig into the problems.
The problems are serious enough that you’ll never see it cited directly in an academic journal, or in most good research papers. But it can still be useful. You just need to know how to use it with caution.
Wikipedia can be edited by anyone. In theory.
By Wikipedia’s own design, anyone can edit it at any time. The theory is that as soon as someone finds something previously undiscovered, they can jump on the Wikipedia page, change it, and the world gains that newly discovered knowledge.
The downside of this is that if a prankster wants to pull up a random celebrity’s page and change the person’s birthplace to Mars, they can.
The problem is that Wikipedia editors automatically view any and all edits with suspicion. An academic coming in with new and important information gets viewed with skepticism. The end result is, people with legitimate edits get them reversed far too often, while pranksters’ edits far too often survive.
Why is Wikipedia not a reliable source? That’s the main reason why.
Some of the information is outdated
A discussion came up in a vintage computer group recently about a Wikipedia article I worked on. Ironically, the biggest issue was with a paragraph I wrote. I went back into the history and looked. I found a secondary source back in 2004 and quoted it, as it was all I could get at the time. Today, someone has a primary source. The primary source has better, more complete information.
What I did in 2004 was better than nothing. By 2006, I was no longer a top-1,000 contributor, and I found I couldn’t go back and improve entries without some overzealous editor reverting them, often without comment. Even if it was stuff I wrote in the first place.
The Web is a very different place today than it was in 2004. Today, millions of government records are digitized and available online, free for the asking. Most newspapers have extensive archives online. They aren’t usually free, but they aren’t expensive. Google has digitized millions of books. You may not be able to read the book online for free, but you can at least find what books have the information you need, then find the book in a library.
The information we need to write near-complete histories of companies that went bust in the 90s exists now, much more so than it did 15 years ago. But if someone goes into an old article and tries, they’re going to have to fight for almost every change. Most decide it isn’t worth it.
When I brought up Wikipedia politics, the consensus was that making changes was hard. The only disagreement was whether it was worth it. But more of us said no than yes. Wikipedia is an unreliable source when someone can charge in with accurate, primary sources and has to fight to get a minor change to stick. And in 12 years, Jimmy Wales hasn’t fixed it. I don’t think he’s motivated to.
How to use Wikipedia
I’m a published author. And obviously I wouldn’t have written tens of thousands of words for Wikipedia if I hadn’t thought it was worth something.
So how do I think you should use Wikipedia? I use it myself. I take images from the Wikimedia Foundation all the time, give them a Creative Commons attribution and move on. But there are plenty of other ways to use it too.
Use Wikipedia as a starting point
Reading the Wikipedia entry gives you two things. First, reading the entry gives you a primer on the subject. It’s probably imperfect. But it’s something. Read it. And think about it. Is anything obviously wrong? Jot that down. Does the entry leave any questions unanswered? Jot that down too. Even if it’s an imperfect source of information, it can be a source of inspiration.
When you finish, look at the sources. That’s the second thing it gives you, and that’s what you really want. The sources you cite in your paper are important. You don’t want to cite Wikipedia in other work, but you can cite its sources. And now that you’ve read the entry, you’ll have the background to understand how the sources link together.
As you read the sources, think back to those things that were wrong, or the unanswered questions. If you find anything relevant to those things you jotted down, note them.
Finding other sources
Google is your friend, literally. Go to news.google.com and enter your topic to see what current newspapers and magazines are saying about it. If your topic is older, go to books.google.com and see what books cover your topic. If nothing else, you’ll be able to go to the library with a list.
So why is Wikipedia not a reliable source? Now you know.