Why It's Time The World Embraced Wikipedia

Wikipedia is frequently considered an unacceptable and unreliable source of information. It's been criticised as "a mish-mash of truth, half truth, and some falsehoods". The same sentiment is expressed in many course documents at universities and schools. Here's a compelling argument why you might want to embrace wiki-style sites and leave your prejudice at the door.

Photo: Wikipedia

In 2005, the journal Nature conducted a study comparing the accuracy of Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britannica. The results showed that the average Wikipedia article had four errors while the average Britannica article had three. A more recent study found that:

Wikipedia fared well in this sample against Encyclopedia Britannica in terms of accuracy, references and overall judgement.

Encyclopedia Britannica reacted strongly to the first study. In 2012, after 244 years, it stopped printing its famous print edition.

What's important about these studies is not Wikipedia's accuracy rate. Rather, the research reminds us that all content contains errors.

Shifting technology

Technology has changed the way we document, share and access knowledge. First came the shift from oral learning and communication to text. This meant that knowledge could be thought about carefully before it was recorded and transmitted. Once recorded it could be assessed and discussed even though the originator was not present. This increased the necessity for content to be correct before it was recorded.

Then the printing press was developed. Now written content could be replicated and shared almost without limit. Mistakes would be seen by even wider audiences, so once again correctness became crucial. The job of proofreader was even developed to guard against mistakes.

The next big advancement was the development of the computer. Now content that was recorded could be changed after the fact -- a crucial change from paper-based content. Word processors, made popular by office suites like Microsoft Office, became common tools. Text could be cut and pasted, words inserted, deleted or changed, or additional content added. Proofreading was still necessary, but no longer as important. After all, content could be changed at any point in the process.

What word processors were to writing, the internet became to printing. Now for the first time not only could content be digitally recorded, it could be shared almost without cost or limit. The explosion of content across billions of websites bears testimony to this.

We've always been correcting

As the research comparing Wikipedia to the Encyclopedia Britannica shows, even printed content has errors. But before digital media, we deemed content to be correct simply because the feedback loop was much slower and not as obvious. The errors in those encyclopedias were corrected in subsequent editions – and, invariably, new ones would be introduced and have to be corrected in another edition down the line.

In academia, published research would eventually be read and critiqued. This would spark new research that improved on what was previously deemed as correct.

All of our scientific development and writing, at a meta level, has essentially been a huge wiki experience. Content evolves and improves as people read and add to it. So our disdain for wiki-type, correcting spaces is essentially a rejection of the process we've been undertaking for centuries. The main differences now are that the correcting cycle is far quicker and many more people have input.

From content to conversation

I've written this article as a process born of my modern technologies. I wrote a draft without being concerned about grammar or exact phrasing, because I knew I'd return to it later. Most important was the capturing of ideas and arguments. Even these were only partially formed and after each reading some were added while others were discarded.

The process of correcting continued until the piece was complete. Complete, but not correct – because this is itself just another voice in the conversation that is correcting as we continue. This is just a wiki of voices filled with content that is surely incorrect but right in our desire to keep improving.

We need to shift our conceptions of content. We need to shift our ideas of "correct". We need to embrace an era where everything is in beta. Everything is correcting. Everything is in conversation. Wikipedia is the ultimate exemplar of such a space. Already, teachers are showing how effective it can be as a tool for learning once we change our perspective. It shatters the illusion of perfection and encourages creativity and critical thinking.

Our attempts to ban students (and writers) from using these modern digital spaces will inevitably fail. And, in the meantime, it will rob us of the opportunity to engage in conversation, rather than blind content consumption. Let the conversation continue.

The ConversationCraig Blewett is Senior Lecturer in Education & Technology at University of KwaZulu-Natal.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

WATCH MORE: Tech News & Life Hacks

Comments

    We all need to support Wikipedia financially and tell other people about it.

    I do - humanity is a collective, knowledge is the our collective power, as such, it needs to be available to everyone - and this requires financial support.

    Wikipedia and the Brittanica are perfectly acceptable sources in the quest for general knowledge. When it comes to academic rigour however, neither is acceptable since by definition neither is a primary source of information.

    I haven't checked Brittanica recently for listing of primary sources of, but Wikipedia certainly functions well as starting place to FIND primary sources.

    I do however believe thought that both SHOULD be OK for primary and even some secondary school assignments, because you can't expect students to read heavy duty academic research or government statistical reports etc... In the interests of critical thinking and analysis, they should nevertheless also be encouraged to seek alternative, non-circularly referenced sources of information.

      Yep. I'll use wikipedia to get equations/relationships that I can't remember, learn background etc, but if I actually need to use something citable, I look at 1) the articles that wikipedia cites and head there, and 2) look at the specific field related terminology that wikipedia uses and use that to search the academic journals directly.

      As to using wikipedia and britannica for primary/secondary assignments, I'd rather primary students learn to search books (whether paper/electronic) directly rather than rely on other people's summaries of the books. So teach them about searching library catalogues etc.
      For secondary, it's getting towards the teaching them bad habits stage if you let them just cite wikipedia articles directly.

        Can you give reasons as to the importance of using primary sources over a summary such as Wikipedia which has it sources listed (assuming the summary is 100% correct). If a journal can be summed up in relatively basic language with little jargon where is the harm in this?

    I have learned more from Wikipedia than I ever did in schools. It and YT resources should be the way knowledge is brought to the masses today. Old school is just that.

    Wikipedia is great. Often I'll look something up, open two new tabs from that page to read when I get to the end of the current page and then I'm down the rabbit hole.

    And the bottom of each page is an invaluable source of information - heaps of things are specifically cited.

    I never quite understood why people found Wikipedia to be unreliable. The fact that you have to cite everything you claim goes a long way towards its accuracy. If you're quoting stuff from WP that isn't cited, you're on your own, but when you can hover over, and click on cited passages to check what you're reading, you can essentially verify the claims yourself.

    Just make sure you don't fall into the habit of believing everything with numbers after it, as studies have shown[1] that this leads to a false sense of security, such as a supposed "Wikipedia Veracity Bias"[2], a term coined by Mr. John Veracity Bias, PhD[3] in his book "Wikipedia is devouring African children with a tree stump grinder"[4]

    I no longer even use Wikipedia. It has so many errors. Whoever wants to use it do.
    Those with brains know better.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now