Wikipedia has become a replacement for the encyclopedias we used growing up. Filled with information about the most esoteric of subjects. But as widespread as its use is, it is still not allowed as a resource for most scholarly endeavors, and students at colleges and universities are often banned from using it as a source for their assignments. What is wrong with Wikipedia?
Wikipedia started in 2001 as a collaborative resource. There are five fundamental principles, called the Five Pillars:
- Wikipedia is an encyclopedia.
- Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view.
- Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute.
- Editors should treat each other with respect and civility.
- Wikipedia has no firm rules.
And right away, we start to see some of the problems with using Wikipedia.
The third pillar states that “anyone can use, edit, and distribute” any content. It goes on to say that “since all editors freely license their work to the public, no editor owns an article and any contributions can and will be mercilessly edited and redistributed.” One of the major problems for genealogists is that there is no control over who says what on Wikipedia.
Wikipedia wants editors to come to consensus, but no provision for expertise. One person with years of knowledge in a field can be overruled by two others with little to none. Or, worse, simply make up information without being contradicted. On the About Wikipedia page, it states that “People of all ages, cultures and backgrounds can add or edit article prose, references, images and other media here. What is contributed is more important than the expertise or qualifications of the contributor.” Under these circumstances, how can you tell how accurate the information is in any given article?
Many articles have sources at the bottom of the page. How often have you gone back to look up a printed source mentioned? How frequently do you click on links to online sources when reading an article? And if you do follow links, do you actually read through the source? How many times are the links broken, so you can’t even try to read them?
There are many reasons why someone might want to put false information on Wikipedia. Often, there is a deliberate attempt to misinform. Sometimes it might be a genuine mistake. Harvard’s guide for using sources for assignments includes a discussion of the problems with Wikipedia, and provides a perfect example. Several years ago, a student was writing a paper on the issues of Wikipedia. He posted a fake entry for himself that said that he was the mayor of a small town in China. Even today, if you search for mayors of towns in China (or look on the student’s name), his entry still shows.
The statistics for Wikipedia are amazing. It includes more than 34 million articles in 285 languages. There are almost 5 million articles in English, containing more than 36 million pages of information. Almost 770 million edits have been made to these articles. The average page has been edited more than 21 times!
There is nothing wrong with using Wikipedia as a starting point. But it should never be used as the sole source of information. It should be used to point you in the right direction to find credible, reliable, and authoritative information.