There is increase in popularity and use of the Internet for research purposes by schools and students. Popular among the web-based information resource is the Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia that uses wiki software for the creation and editing of contents on its site. The use of Wikipedia for research has increased over the years. It is the world’s acclaimed 6th most visited website (“Most Popular Websites on the Internet”, 2012) . This status is not without its own challenges. The main one being that of credibility. An online encyclopedia that allows anyone to edit its entries to some, limits its validity. This paper attempts to look at some of the reasons its credibility is in question.
Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia. It uses a collaborative software known as wiki to facilitate the creation, development, and editing of entries by contributors who do so without pay. It is available in 285 languages with about 100,000 regularly active contributors. Once connected to the web users can write and edit articles on the site. Wikipedia has gained much popularity particularly because of its rich information and full accessibility of data. However, owing to its open-source management style that allows anybody to change contents, there has been a growing concern about Wikipedia’s credibility as a source of information for academic work.
Wikipedia was founded as an offshoot of Nupedia, a now-abandoned project to produce a free encyclopedia. Nupedia had an elaborate system of peer review and required highly qualified contributors but the writing of articles was slow. During 2000, Jimmy Wales, founder of Nupedia, and Larry Sanger whom Wales had employed to work on the project, discussed ways of supplementing Nupedia with a more open, complementary project. Multiple sources suggested that a wiki might allow members of the public to contribute material, and Nupedia’s first wiki went online on January 10, 2001.
There was considerable resistance by Nupedia’s editors and reviewers to the idea of associating Nupedia with a website in the wiki format, so Sanger coined the name Wikipedia, which is a portmanteau of wiki (a type of collaborative website, from the Hawaiian word wiki, meaning “quick”) and encyclopedia. Wikipedia was launched on its own domain, wikipedia.com, on January 15. In May 2001, a wave of non-English Wikipedia was launched. (Wikipedia, 2012).
Supporters of Wikipedia believe contents are verified for accuracy, and monitored for consistency and currency. Nevertheless, at the rate contents are created and edited – about three million in 2008 and presently 21 million – accuracy cannot match the speed! Voss (2011) stated “Edit history and user contributions are auxiliary clues (to the quality of the site) but very time-consuming to review” (p.10). Even the founder of Wikipedia have expressed concern over the existence of such inconsistency and inaccuracy of contents. ” Various experts (including founder Jimmy Wales and Jonathan Zittrain, Oxford University) have expressed concern over possible (intentional or unintentional) bias” (“Wikipedia”, 2012).
Others contend that because Wikipedia is a huge information resource, which allows open inspection and arguments in which changes are debated, it is a useful source for scholastic work (Smooth & Crovitz, 2011). Many others argue that the errors found on Wikipedia are not uncommon to errors found in other encyclopedias. For example, In December 2005, the scientific journal Nature published the results of a study comparing the accuracy of Wikipedia and the printed Encyclopedia Britannica. The researchers found that the number of “factual errors, omissions or misleading statements” in each references work was not so different – Wikipedia contained 162, and Britannica had 123. This was not generally accepted as the makers of Britannica have since called on Nature to retract the study, which it claims is completely without merit” (Woods & Thoeny, 2007, pp. 90-92).
A major issue with Wikipedia is that of source authenticity. Since people are free to create contents from sources at their disposal, some articles may contain unverified and inconsistent information. Sources are not properly cited. Most materials do not meet the criteria of a good source among which are currency of information, impartiality, and evaluating credentials of authors.. This explains why contents are continually edited. Ray and Graeff (2008), historical scholarship is also characterized by possessive individualism. Good professional practice requires that ideas and words are attributed to specific historians. A historic work without owners and with multiple authors like Wikipedia, is thus almost unimaginable in our professional culture.
Using Wikipedia saves time owing to its versatility and large information base, some have argued. This is because contributors are more interested in flooding the site with information than painstakingly digging deep to ensure quality of contents. Topics in Wikipedia are sometimes treated superficially with the aim of transferring a general and simple understanding across to users. When such an article is cited in a professional research work, it automatically renders the work incomplete, inaccurate, and misleading. Readers do not need to be scholars to read between the lines on Wikipedia. Content is not exactly expert knowledge, it is common knowledge. For example, an article on nuclear reactor will not be anything different from what most people know about nuclear reactors and what the authors think common people can understand (Keen, 2008).
One of the five pillars, which guide Wikipedia’s operations is that Wikipedia is free content that anyone can edit, use, modify or distribute. The idea of inviting readers to serve as authors or editors poses a problem. Not all users are thorough in providing accurate information, and they are others who deliberately mutilate particular articles or post misleading statements. Sometimes, information is posted or edited by people who have little or inadequate knowledge of the subject, and as the adage goes, little knowledge is dangerous. Wikipedia has no way in evaluating the credentials of content authors as it is free for all.
Even though these content are edited, one can never be sure how many errors have been corrected. According to Voss (2004), as more people read about an article, the more errors are emended some might say. However, one can hardly be sure how many qualified people have read an article and how many errors remain. Edit wars sometimes occur in Wikipedia. Edit wars occur when two contributors (or group of contributors) repeatedly edit each other’s work based on a particular bias. Using such a content makes the research work the ‘casualty’ of such ‘wars’. In early 2004, Wikipedia set up an Arbitration Committee to settle such disputes (Woods & Thoeny, 2007).
Wikipedia describes itself as, “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” As discussed earlier, the site runs on “democratic” principles allowing anyone to contribute, create, edit, and distribute contents freely. Free and open access has outlined above, have serious consequences as it exposes texts to vandalism and inconsistency.
Wikipedia’s contents are edited based on individuals perceived opinion or knowledge, unlike other online resources like the Oxford English Dictionary for example, which was developed by a carefully selected team of experienced professionals. By compromising traditional concept of authorship, Wikipedia affects associated issues of authority, originality, and value. When a source’s authority and accuracy is in question then the credibility is not guaranteed. Frankly, a site like Wikipedia that allows anyone to add, change, or remove information cannot be credible.
Spatt, B. (2011). Writing from sources (8th ed.). Bedford St. Martin Publishing.
Ray, A. and Graeff, E. (2008). Reviewing the Author-Function in the Age of Wikipedia
Woods, D. and Thoeny, P. (2007). Wikis for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ, Wiley Publishing, Inc.
Smoot W.S. and Crovitz D. (2009). Wikipedia: Friend, Not Foe,” in English Journal 98.3
Keen, A. (2008). The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture. Bantam Dell Publishing Group
Voss J. (2004). Measuring Wikipedia