Wikipedia more accurate, more current than encyclopedia

Justin Dennis's picture

current, encyclopaedia britannica, Issue 11, Justin Dennis, updated, wikipedia, Opinion - By Justin Dennis on Thursday, November 17, 2011 - 03:37

Time and time again, students are told by professors never to even consider the hideous, mind-consuming monster that is Wikipedia. That evil, corrupt source of misinformation can be edited by anyone, and therefore is always unreliable, because anyone could say anything!

Nope, sorry. Most major articles are what Wikipedia calls “semi-protected,” meaning that they can only be edited by a registered user who has built a good reputation with the site. You can’t anonymously go change Barack Obama’s place of birth to Indonesia—it won’t let you (sorry, Trump).

People who edit a lot, and cite accurate, reliable sources, can make it to the role of administrator. These administrators—along with bureaucrats, stewards and the Arbitration Committee—look to ensure that Wikipedia’s information is correct, unbiased and free from vandalism. Bureaucrats are essentially the level above administrators; they have the ability to give or take way administrative rights. Stewards are the highest of technology nerds, oversee the general running of the website. The Arbitration Committee deals with disagreements amongst the Wikipedia community, and are usually administrators who are elected by the community.

Wikipedia also has what it calls the “Five Pillars,” which are the rules it lives by. The most important, I think, being “Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view.” This pillar requires that all sources be cited and verified as accurate. Also, since there are so many editors from so many backgrounds, bias is hard to come by. Whereas with a traditional encyclopedia, where you get a bias from the few writers, editors and publishers, Wikipedia allows for anyone with any opinion to challenge the opinion of another, resulting in largely bias-free information.

In terms of accuracy, Wikipedia has actually been found by several studies to be as accurate as or more accurate than Encyclopaedia Britannica and Microsoft’s Encarta.

In a study by Nature Magazine in 2005, they had experts in certain fields review articles from both Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica, although they weren’t told which article was from which source. In the end, eight glaring mistakes were found—four from both sources. In terms of small errors, the Britannica averaged 2.92 mistakes per article, while Wikipedia averaged 3.86 mistakes per article. However, because Wikipedia’s articles were, on average, 2.6 times longer than Britannica’s, they actually had fewer errors per amount of information. In the end, Nature concluded that Wikipedia “comes close” to Encyclopaedia Britannica in terms of accuracy.

Dr. Oliver Downing, a retired lecturer in pharmacology at the University of Aston, England, found that Wikipedia was more reliable in the field of chemistry than both Britannica and Encarta. Dr. Chris Clark, a historian at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, England, compared the same three sources in the field of history and found that Wikipedia “is especially good on relatively circumscribed events, where providing a good service is a matter of compiling as much relevant contextual material as possible, filling in the details and providing a clear outline of key milestones.”

A study conducted by Library Journal in 2006 concluded that “Wikipedia may be granted the librarian’s seal of approval,” after being reviewed by librarians, whom they call “the toughest critics of reference materials, whatever their format.”

What needs to come across here is that Wikipedia is more than just a hodgepodge of everybody’s whimsical thoughts on various subjects. It is often accurate, thorough and has sources cited. If a page is incomplete, possibly inaccurate or missing citations, a warning will appear at the top of the page. Pages that may undergo “edit-wars” (like Sarah Palin’s page when she announced her bid for the 2008 Vice President position) are locked down so that vandalism will not occur. Because there are so many eyes out there watching these pages, vandalism is generally quickly spotted and removed.

To test how quickly vandalism was corrected, PC Authority Magazine in Australia deliberately altered 10 articles. Within an hour, nine of them had been fixed by someone in the Wikipedia community. The last one was corrected just outside of an hour. Vandalism isn’t as easy to accomplish on Wikipedia as many people think.

Also, Wikipedia can be updated instantly. Whereas traditional encyclopedias are not updated until the next edition, Wikipedia is usually updated the moment an event happens. For real-time or current news, Wikipedia should be much preferred over traditional encyclopedias.

So feel free to travel to Wikipedia for information; you may learn something. If you can, follow the citation to the website and verify the information—your professor probably won’t let you cite Wikipedia anyway! Another great thing about Wikipedia is that print sources are often cited, and we all know that nobody looks through print anymore in the digital age. So Wikipedia can help you discover these untapped resources. Go find the books and cite them.

The Internet is the greatest resource we have today, and Wikipedia is a wonderful accumulation of everybody’s knowledge. Open, free access to information is vital to a thriving democracy, and a site that allows for this access of reliable information should be celebrated, not scorned. Embrace Wikipedia and learn about the world around you!