The Epitaph Issue 3

Published: December 4, 2013

By Shauli Bar-On

Can we trust it?  

Any student who has ever had to do a research project knows how to cite sources. For as long as students can remember, teachers have never found Wikipedia to be a credible source.

Like many other students, I was initially extremely irritated by this and wanted to challenge teachers’ opinions, but while many students and adults alike may find my current conclusion a burden, ultimately, Wikipedia is not a valid source for research projects.

The website, which was launched in 2001, is a non-profit organization for providing an easy access to free-to-edit articles on just about anything. It is important to note however, that WIkipedia is not a scholarly encyclopedia, nor does it regard itself as such. It is merely a website that provides general, broad information on various subjects. Nonetheless, Wikipedia is ranked fifth in international views with 500 million unique viewers per month.

Wikipedia’s open-nature forum allows for non-expert writers to write factual errors and hoax articles. Due to the danger of these errors, Wikipedia has created a factual patrol group.

However, this group is voluntary and there is no way for Wikipedia to check whether or not the editor is legitimate. In order to begin contributing, a Wikipedia member must pass a fact test. It is important to note that there is no way for Wikipedia to tell who took this fact test, and who is actually editing or writing the articles.

Nature, an internationally acclaimed science education movement, conducted a nature-study and compared the science articles in Encyclopedia Britannica, an online website published by experts, and Wikipedia’s science articles. The study, comparing forty-two articles, found four serious errors in both websites. However, Wikipedia had at least forty more factual and spelling errors than Encyclopedia Britannica.

Cornell University’s follow-up study also concluded that Wikipedia’s articles are not scholarly, and should only be used to obtain general information about a concept.

In 2007, WikiScanner, a program which provides public access to Wikipedia edits, revealed that individuals with clear conflicts of interests were editing articles to benefit themselves or their cause. CIA agents and members of the Democratic Party were some examples that were uncovered, and Wikipedia has in fact banned all edits originating from congressional IP addresses.

Very many Wikipedia pages display a disclaimer at the top of the article to indicate controversies within the facts. Wikipedia also tells readers if an article is improperly cited.

While these ideas can in fact help Wikipedia’s credibility, there are no edits being made to fix these problems. Article facts and source disputes are still ongoing and remain unedited. Many boxes have in fact remained on Wikipedia articles from as far back as 2011.

Medical students at the University of California, San Francisco are looking to change Wikipedia’s credibility. Since 53 million of Wikipedia’s views are on medicine, Professor Amin Azzam from UCSF wanted to fix critical errors on these articles.

Azzam allowed students to edit medical articles for a grade in Wikipedia, claiming that this both helps society and teaches young med students in the field of study.

Wikipedia does not regard itself as a scholarly source. Should the organization want to be known as such, it would need to improve its writing procedures. Until Wikipedia perfects its editing, and ensures its writers are indeed professionals, students should not cite Wikipedia as a source and should stop arguing against teacher’s research policies. As WIkipedia itself puts it: “We hope you’ll find our articles useful road maps for further exploration across a whole range of subjects.”

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