If you have a devilish sense of humour, you can derive endless amusement by engaging your supervisors and your librarian in some earnest discussion about Wikipedia.  Next time you’re searching for a vital piece of information, just try asking an innocent question along the lines of, “My girlfriend/ flat-mate/ brother said I should just do a Wikipedia search, but I don’t know how reliable it is – what do you think?” Then sit back and enjoy the fun.

Maybe you’re unaware just how contentious the subject is, but it won’t take you long to find out.

You might argue that, as a sensible and responsible librarian myself, I ought not to encourage you in such mischief.  Well, maybe you’re right.  But the point I want to make is that you need to take care when you’re web-searching. Many librarians vehemently oppose the use of Wikipedia and other similar sources for scholarly research.  Why might that be?

First let me give you Wikipedia’s own definition of itself, so we know what we’re talking about:-

Wikipedia … is a free, web-based, collaborative, multilingual encyclopedia project supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Its name is a portmanteau of the words wiki (a technology for creating collaborative websites, from the Hawaiian word wiki, meaning “quick”) and encyclopedia.

Now, when I started thinking about this blog post, I intended to alert you to the dangers of putting too much trust in Wikipedia.  However, if I’ve inherited one trait from my late father, it’s the ability to appreciate more than one point of view.  So I looked at a few entries on subjects that I reckon I know well; I felt it was only fair to see what Wikipedia said about itself, and to do a bit more delving into the way entries were put together.  After careful consideration here’s what I think on five key areas:-

1. Not a bad place to start.  If you’re looking for basic facts, and you’re happy to verify them elsewhere, then there’s no harm in going to Wikipedia.

You’re looking for biographical dates?  Or a definition of some technical term?  Then why not take the easy option?!  On the other hand, if what you’re looking up might be controversial, then you need to know more about what you find there.  As a researcher, you have to develop inbuilt antennae to detect where there might be bias, and to handle such information with caution.

2. Reliability.  Can you rely upon the information you find in a resource that has evolved by communal effort, and is not peer-reviewed in the conventional sense, with entries edited by nameless individuals of unknown reputation, and citations drawn from all manner of sources, both old and new?

It doesn’t sound too hopeful, does it?  However, if you look at Wikipedia’s own entry on Reliability of Wikipedia, you’ll find that at least some research has found Wikipedia’s “self-healing” properties to be surprisingly effective – in other words, errors are often (not always) picked up and corrected by subsequent self-appointed editors.  But take care: omissions of key facts or areas can in themselves lead to undesirable bias.  Ask yourself: Would you recognise a gap?

3. Unpicking the stitches.  If you’re serious about discerning how reliable a Wikipedia entry is, then you need to do some detective-work.  I view this as a similar exercise to unpicking a garment in order to establish how it was made.

Look at the structure of the article – has some thought gone into the compilation of the entry, including the coding and hyperlinks etc.  Are there references?  (More of this in a minute!)  Additionally, can you establish the author of an entry?  Sometimes, yes.  Go the tab, View History, from there to Revision History, and finally click on Contributors.  If you’re lucky you can click on their name or pseudonym and find out more.  You’ll also be able to see just how many times the article has been edited. All these are clues.

4. Identify the sources.  Towards the end of the article, there may well be footnotes, references and external links.  See if you can establish how up-to-date the information is, and where it came from.

If you’re looking for historical facts, then it may not matter that the information comes from a very old edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.  On the other hand, if that information is judgmental, then maybe there’s an undesirable bias that you won’t want to perpetuate.  Again, with a historical figure, it might be that their contemporaries viewed them one way, but that modern historians see things otherwise.

So, don’t just look for the dates of the sources and nod sagely.  Decide for yourself whether you’re happy with the dates of the sources, and keep an eye open for missing decades or centuries!  Remember that country boundaries can move, place-names can change, and even spelling conventions can change.  (We used to refer to the composer Tchaikowsky; now it’s usually Tchaikovsky.)  How crucial is currency in your particular discipline?  What’s acceptable?

5. Don’t accept the citations blindly without checking them.  Remember my example of the undergraduate looking for three books by a particular author.

Wikipedia didn’t tell her that one “book” was an article in an Italian journal (journal title, date, and volume number would have been useful); a second book had gone out of print so quickly that few libraries seem to hold it. Better bibliographical details would certainly have helped establish that fact; and a third book was still apparently being written. “Unpicking the stitches” just might have established whether there was a chance the book had now been completed – or, conversely, was unlikely ever to see the light of day!

If you see a promising reference, check it out. You can do this in many places: subject-specific abstracting/indexing database, a national library catalogue, a union catalogue (in the UK, we have COPAC, which allows you to search all the UK University and national library catalogues simultaneously) – or, indeed, even Google books, Amazon, Alibris, or another bookseller that deals in both current and out-of-print titles.

After careful consideration I can’t adopt a  black-and-white view either for or against using Wikipedia. Notwithstanding all these warnings, I must admit that I was quite impressed by Wikipedia’s “Reliability” article, and by the care that has gone into setting it up as a collaborative resource.  But at the end of the day, information is only as good as the diligence and reliability of the entry’s creator, and you need to satisfy yourself that you can depend upon the information that you’ve found.

Finally – Can you, or indeed, should you cite Wikipedia in your own work?  Again, Wikipedia concedes that opinion is divided on this.  (Of course, sometimes you can get round the problem by citing the source from which the Wikpedia author derived their material.)  But I’d advise you to ask your own supervisor, or journal editor, if it’s acceptable to cite Wikipedia – and, of course, always to ensure that your own citations are impeccable in their detail!

Have you tried to cite wikipedia? What happened?

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