Is Wikipedia Reliable?

A question that's likely on the mind of anyone who has never used Wikipedia before is: "how reliable is its information?"  Indeed, there is no shortage of scholars, historians, teachers, and journalists who don't trust Wikipedia as a source of credible information, especially concerning controversial topics.  But there are other studies that show that, despite its size, Wikipedia is about as accurate as the famous Encyclopedia Britannica.

To understand whether or not Wikipedia is reliable, you have to understand the philosophy behind how its content is created and edited, its strengths and weaknesses, and how it plays out in practice.

Wikipedia's Content Philosophy

Wikipedia follows a model commonly known as "crowdsourcing", which basically means that it tries to allow as many people as possible to work on it all at the same time, no matter who they are.  The idea behind this is that the more people who contribute to Wikipedia, the bigger and more accurate it gets, and the faster it does these things.  Basically, based on what each individual contributor to Wikipedia knows, more people means more new and different content, and more people means more sets of eyes to spot and correct mistakes.

Other than that, Wikipedia tries to stick to five general rules:

  • Wikipedia is meant to be written in encyclopedia style.  It is not meant for news, opinions, promotions, or specialized information that belongs in a database such as a directory.

  • Wikipedia strives to be neutral; it seeks to explain topics, not debate them.  It considers and gives context to all points of view, not just to the experience or opinion of a writer or editor.  Information should be verifiable by credible official sources when possible.

  • Anyone who posts any articles or edits on Wikipedia automatically consents to allowing anyone else to edit their work (in a non-malicious manner, of course).

  • Wikipedia authors and editors are to respect each other.  They are not to constantly overwrite the edits of others, create fake topics, delete useful topics, or otherwise disrupt or improperly use Wikipedia as a form of argument or personal grudge.

  • Wikipedia's rules are not permanent, and can change in response to what needs to be done to improve or maintain the website.

Wikipedia's Philosophy in Practice

Over time, Wikipedia has had to institute certain policies to keep its five general rules intact.  These include making it so that only registered users on the website can create or edit certain articles, and only administrators can edit certain articles that are controversial or where disputes have arisen.  Still, there are certain underlying issues with the way Wikipedia does things.

Unintentional User Base Bias

Just because almost anyone CAN contribute to Wikipedia doesn't mean that almost everyone DOES contribute to Wikipedia.  There may be unintentional biases in terms of who contributes to Wikipedia; for example, the English version of Wikipedia has over 4.6 million articles, whereas the next most popular version of Wikipedia, the German one, only has about 1.8 million articles.  In addition, Wikipedia's dedicated user base is relatively small and not the most diverse crowd.  In 2009, just over 40,000 people reported being "regular" or "occasional" users of Wikipedia, with most users reporting being males in their 20s or 30s.  

This means that certain topics may be more prevalent or include much more information than others, depending on the knowledge and interests of Wikipedia's user base.  For example, as of 2008, the majority of articles on Wikipedia were about art, entertainment, and popular culture, whereas it was much more difficult to find specific articles on religions or belief systems, for example.

Post Now, Fix Later

Wikipedia's philosophy in practice has been shown to be, ultimately, geared more toward speed and volume of content than accuracy.  As noted above, Wikipedia has changed its policies over the years to help stop misinformation before it starts, but generally, information on Wikipedia does not have to be cleared or verified by anyone before it is posted.

This means that it is largely the responsibility of moderators or other contributors to correct or remove any untrue or overly biased information after it is already on the website.  But because Wikipedia's dedicated user base is so small in proportion to the amount of information on and being regularly added to Wikipedia, misinformation can sometimes slip under their watch and stay on an article for a considerable amount of time without anyone catching and challenging it.  It's rare, but it happens.

The Bottom Line on Wikipedia's Reliability

The best advice we can give you when it comes to determining whether Wikipedia is a reliable source of information or not is an old journalism saying: "trust, but verify".  Wikipedia is generally reliable when it comes to basic information and background facts about a particular topic.  However, when it comes to the finer details, the line between fact and opinion blurs a bit. 

Your best bet in these cases is to look for citations next to certain statements, then read those documents and form your own opinion on whether they have been interpreted correctly or not.  For articles on more contemporary topics, you can also just check the facts against those in stories by major news outlets.


Pros and Cons of Wikipedia

Wondering what the buzz is about Wikipedia, both good and bad?  Here's a short list of high and low points to keep in mind when you're using the website.

Pros

  • No need to give, unless you feel like it — Wikipedia is absolutely free-of-charge to use.  You don't need to pay any money to browse, edit, or create articles, or to sign up for an account (though you can make a donation, if you're feeling generous)!

  • A wide array of topics — Wikipedia has over 34 million articles, including over 4.6 million articles on the English version alone, so you're bound to find at least some information about anything that you're looking for.

  • A truly global encyclopedia — Wikipedia is available in over 200 different languages, so even if English isn't your native tongue, you'll still be able to find the information you need in a dialect that you can understand.

  • This just in — New information is being added to Wikipedia all the time, so you can stay up-to-date with the latest developments on a certain subject.  There's always more to learn!

  • Available almost anywhere you go — As an Internet-based service, you can access Wikipedia from almost any modern computer, including mobile devices such as smart phones and tablet computers.  Get the information you need to know, when you need to know it.

Cons

  • Created by the community… but how diverse is it? — While Wikipedia is still mostly open in terms of who can create or edit articles (i.e. basically anyone who signs up for an account), the group of users who do so on a regular basis is relatively small.  This means that there might be certain biases in the tone of how articles are written, and some articles may have much more information than others.

  • "Post now, fix later" can cause misinformation — While Wikipedia has taken steps to increase the accuracy of its content and prevent misinformation and vandalism (as outlined above), it is still relatively open in terms of who can contribute.  This means that there is certain information on the website that has not been properly verified or is outright biased or incorrect, and it can stay that way for a long time until someone notices it and fixes it.  If you read something on Wikipedia that seems a little off, consider fixing it yourself (if you know the correct information), or if you can't, then consider checking it against another trusted source of information.

Final Review of Wikipedia: 8.5/10

It's kind of hard to go wrong with Wikipedia.  It's a completely free service available in over 200 languages that has at least some information on pretty much anything you can think of.  Plus, it's constantly being updated, and its interface is extremely user-friendly even on mobile devices, so the information is there for you when and where you need it.

However, Wikipedia's greatest strength is also its largest drawback.  Since it relies on the consensus of a more-or-less anonymous user community — as opposed to accredited experts — to quickly create and verify its articles, not all of its information is reliable or without bias, and this misinformation isn't always detected and fixed before it can spread.  In addition, the amount of information on certain topics is partially determined by what the user community wants to know about and write about.  Some people just find "lightsabers" more interesting than the printing press, for example.

In short, when using Wikipedia, follow the old journalist's adage: "trust, but verify".


What is Wikipedia and How Does It Work?

Created in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, Wikipedia's name tells you pretty much all you need to know about it.  It's a combination of the Hawaiian word for "quick" ("wiki") and the word "encyclopedia", so it's a way to find general information on all sorts of topics rapidly and conveniently over the Internet.  Available in over 200 languages and comprising over 34 million articles (with 4.6 million articles on the English version alone), it is the largest general reference website on the Internet.  But there's more to Wikipedia than that!

  • Wikipedia is completely free to use (though the Wikimedia Foundation — the non-profit organization that runs Wikipedia — accepts donations to help keep the website running).

  • You don't need an account to access Wikipedia's articles (though you may need one to access some of the editing features).

  • Unlike traditional encyclopedias, being based on the Internet allows Wikipedia to be instantly expanded as the need for new information arises.  New entries are being added all the time, so if you know about something that nobody else does, you can create a new page yourself!  (Note: you may need an account for this.)

  • Wikipedia's web-based format also allows its entries to be changed instantly as new information about something or someone comes to light.  If you see something on Wikipedia that isn't quite right, or could be expanded upon, you can change or add to it, or at least start a discussion on why it should be changed or expanded.  (Again, you may need an account for this.)