Wikipedia: Do you use it? Do you cite it? And, is it a good thing?

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So, I also went to the same Science Journalism conference that Dave S. spoke of in the previous post. One of the sessions, in particular, that resulted in a heated argument, was whether the internet and the whole Web2.0 was a good thing.

Particularly from the angle of whether it was good at providing science news, or increasing science literacy generally. The arguments (pro and con) more or less went as follows:


With the web, you have an incredible increase in accessibility, as well as the ability of following up the paper trail of what it is that is being reported (i.e. you can track down the original source relatively easily these days). You also have an increase in citizen journalism, which means that smaller voices can have a say. This ultimately results in the ability for things otherwise not deemed “news worthy” to have a place in media. Science culture (how science is done, as oppose to what is the final result) in particular can benefit from this.

However, on the flip side, you have a scary lack of filtering going on. In that anybody (even wingnuts and crackpots) can make a decent looking website, and therefore potentially provide biased and even incorrect information in such a way that it becomes viewed as a “trusted source.” As well, websites that command the most clout in filtering or aggregating these things tend to focus on the goofy, silly, wow-type things – not always relevant items. Looking at the top hits for an web aggregator like digg.com (for science) is a great example of this. Finally, how exactly does pulling info from the web relate to the average Joe – somebody who might use the website, but necessarily follow the trends and caveats behind its use.

Anyway, during the debate, Wikipedia came up, and it was brought to light that a lot of University students not only use it, but actually rely on it. For instance, they might cite it in a paper they are writing for class, and there were many in the audience who thought this was a dangerous slope to go down.

So, I’m curious – how many of you out there use Wikipedia? And how many of you (be frank please) trust it? For instance, how many of you are actually aware that in many respects, it is a popularity contest, because the content is community produced, and essentially the louder more frequent voices control the content you see for each entry? What do you think generally about Wikipedia?

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David (@ng_dave) is Faculty at the Michael Smith Labs. His writing has appeared in places such as McSweeney's, The Walrus, and boingboing.net. He plans on using Terry as another place to highlight the mostly science-y links he appreciates. In fact, if you liked this one, you might also like his main site generally - this can be found at popperfont.net.

7 Responses to “Wikipedia: Do you use it? Do you cite it? And, is it a good thing?”

  1. Dave Semeniuk

    What really bothers me about Wikipedia is the veil of peer-review it touts, when in fact it is anything but peer reviewed. In order for something like Wikipedia to work like an actual encyclopedia, EVERYONE has to be actively involved (i.e. everyone with verifiable knowledge about a particular subject would need to actively read, edit, and contribute to the site). A quick survey of UBC prof’s would likely (well, the ones I have spoken with) suggest that those with the most intimate knowledge of particular subjects aren’t participating. A quick review of the oceanography pages sent a chill up my spine.

    Ultimately, I think the problem is with the expectations of professors on students. When I wrote a paper as an undergraduate student, I imagined it WERE to be peer reviewed and published (well, not really – but the point is to treat it that way). Would a Prof use Wikipedia as a reliable reference in an academic article? Of course not, so why should student’s be allowed – or worse yet encouraged – to use it?

    I think Alfred Hermida, the keynote speaker at the conference, would respond (as he did) with: “If you’re unhappy with the information on Wikipedia, then why not contribute?” My answer, “Because I don’t buy into the wares its mongering.” Sure, it provides some “Ahah” moments, or possibly even a few “goofy, silly, wow-type things”, but that’s it.

  2. Laurence

    In 2005, a Nature study comparing Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica found a similar number of inaccuracy in both resources. As a student, this does not mean that I trust Wikipedia enough – or Encyclopedia Britannica. I would be lying if I said I do not go to Wikipedia for information. In fact, I find it useful when I need a quick overview before getting cited. I then proceed to more academic documentation – journals and books. The point is that no matter what source you use, one is never enough. Oh, and I never cited Wikipedia per se. If an interesting point was raised in one of the entries, I always sought it’s original source or whether it was mentioned elsewhere.

  3. Churmy Fan

    i don’t think it’s a huge problem. I am actually a fan of Wikipedia because, as mentioned before, it’s a good source for a topic summary. if I cared a lot about a topic and the details are important for me, I would definately look up more sources than just wikipedia. likewise, if i didn’t care very much about the topic, then a skim through wikipedia is sufficient. i think where wikipedia is weak in are the details, which in this case doesnt really matter anyway

  4. Scott Davy

    Great if you hear a term and are curious to know what its about (Clerk of the Privy Council etc). Good to satisfy curiosity, though caution is of course the name of the game. Not appropriate for academic writing and have certainly failed papers at Queen’s that have used it.

  5. William Flanigan

    I’ve recently been encouraged to use Wikipedia as a ‘jumping off point’ for several assignments/projects this term.

    Perhaps it’s just the IB coming in out in me, but I see Wikipedia as totally valid in academic writing, but only if the writer specifically addresses the implications of it as a source. Some very interesting writing could be done about how different parties viewed a subject and I believe that wikipedia would provide an excellent source of what the mildly-educated consensus on the topic is

  6. Albert Ding

    CSI analogy: “Wikipedia is to the research process, as a poorly preserved crime scene is to catching the real killer.” /creativity off

    I have used Wikipedia in the past to find helpful clues and ideas as to where I can find more specific and accurate information (the whole paper trail thing). But I’ve never cited Wikipedia, and knowing how the whole thing works, probably never will. Though I will say this; articles for some of the terms and concepts I’ve looked up on Wikipedia, regarding biology at least, have been quite… “in sync” with what my textbooks/professors have said. And eerily so, because sometimes it feels like the same prof. gave the lecture and then went back to their office and transcribed most of it onto Wiki.

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