UoL Library Blog

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Reliability of Wikipedia

Posted by knockels on 13 February, 2009

Read recently an interesting piece on the Guardian blogs, by Marcel Berlins. He starts by arguing that Wikipedia is fundamentally flawed, as it allows anyone to edit without having their credentials checked.   As evidence for this he cites some examples of people’s biographies being inaccurate (people being declared dead, for example, when they are not – mind you, the Guardian obits page itself has done this, I think).  But he ends by saying that to change Wikipedia so that this vetting occurs would be unmanageable, and therefore we need to accept that its usefulness comes at a price.

This has set me thinking.  I can see that articles about things where political opinions generate a lot of heat might well be open to abuse or misuse, with frequent edits and more opinions than fact.   I would be loath to see medical students rely on Wikipedia when there are sources with more obvious provenance available. 

But I suspect that articles about things where there are plenty of enthusastic amateurs (morris dancing, for example) may be very useful, up to date, and accurate, and that the discussion page attached to the article will document all the angels dancing on the head of a pin sort of arguments that ensue.

I run a web evaluation exercise with second year genetics students, where they choose two websites from a list I supply.   One has to be one that they think is suitable to use in academic work (and they have a list of criteria to use to help them evaluate), and the other one one that is unsuitable.   Some of the sites are obviously fine, and others obviously not, but I have included a Wikipedia page.   Last year was interesting, and this year will be too, I think!

7 Responses to “Reliability of Wikipedia”

  1. ajcann said

    Tell Marcel to read his Shirky.

  2. Personally I’m a skeptic about anything I read – even peer review lets through flawed (and heck even plain wrong) information. It’s an imperfect universe – live with it I say. But as Alan says, I tend to lean more towards the self-correcting medel for wiki; and use it as part of my information environment. I think courses like the one you teach on critical appraisal are actually of greater benefit than all the basic skills training we do with databases; as its not something I know all depts teach in-house.

  3. Wikipedia is good for basic, factual, inarguable stuff: what is the unit of currency in Bolivia, sort of thing. Although even then, there is the danger of pranksters changing entries.

    For anything detailed, contentious or obscure, Wikipedia is *useful* but not *reliable*. My rule of thumb is that Wikipedia should always be the first place you look, but it should never be the last place you look.

  4. Unless you’re travelling to Bolivia😉

  5. […] knockels wrote an interesting post today on Reliability of Wikipedia « UoL Library BlogHere’s a quick excerptHe starts by arguing that Wikipedia is fundamentally flawed, as it allows anyone to edit without having their credentials checked. As evidence for this he cites some examples of people’s biographies being inaccurate (people being … […]

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  7. You just can’t be sure about the quality of the content. But is is still a valuable source of information. Read with a critical mindset.
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