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Listen to Wikipedia, not your professors


By Nico Perrino




“What type of sources should we use?” asks the student.

His class was just assigned a research paper and told it needed to use five outside sources.

“Are online ones okay?”

“Online sources are fine so long as they’re reputable,” the teacher responds. “Things like Wikipedia don’t count. Just use common sense, and you’ll be fine.”

If you’ve sat in a classroom sometime in the past eleven years, chances are this conversation is familiar to you.

It happens almost every semester, in every class that requires even the smallest amount of writing.

Teachers and professors like to pile on criticism of Wikipedia and use it almost every opportunity they get to discuss untrustworthy sources.

And if you didn’t know better, chances are you’d listen to them and think of it as an online bastion of untruths, unapologetically spreading lies throughout the unassuming populace.

But a 2005 investigation by “Nature,” a weekly international science journal, suggests this is not the case.

The investigation found that the open-source online encyclopedia rivals the expert-written Encyclopædia Britannica when it comes to accuracy and prevalence of serious errors.

Since 2005, Wikipedia has grown to include more editors, more articles and more readers.

You see, the common argument from Wikipedia critics is that because anyone can edit an article on the site, the content is unreliable.

This line of thinking stems from the antiquated 20th century belief that experts are more worthy of our trust than societal consensus when it comes to everything from basic facts to innovation.

But the open-source movement, a by-product of the digital revolution, has blown this idea out of the water.

Products like the Firefox web browser and the mobile-based Android operating system, which depend on a wide community of volunteer coders and hackers to maintain and improve the products, have demonstrated that great products can be created without experts on corporate payrolls.

In this regard, Wikipedia is similar. Aside from a couple of the more popular articles that require basic registration, anyone can edit it.

Therefore, the site depends on the consensus of society rather than a few anointed experts.

And, as the safety and popularity of Firefox and Andriod suggest, and as the “Nature” investigation reveals, this can be a powerful way of doing business.

My roommates and I were introduced to this power last year after we moved into our new house.

There had been a running joke among us since we moved in that we were fighting an ongoing war against the cave crickets that lived amongst us.

For those not familiar, cave crickets are spidery-looking insects that live in damp areas — often basements — of old homes. Admittedly they can be pretty scary.

Because they’re blind, they’re often oblivious to your presence and will jump on you if startled. There are a lot of them in Bloomington, so chances are you’ve seen one.

Anyway, my roommates and I renamed them “cave spider monsters” and one day decided it might be funny to rename them on Wikipedia, too.

Because Wikipedia is “open-sourced,” our new name went up online. But, much to our surprise, it wasn’t up long. Within hours it was taken down, and the correct name restored.

This surprised me.

After all, the cave cricket article is a somewhat obscure article, which at the time I was sure probably wasn’t terribly well maintained.

But I was wrong. The community that oversees each Wikipedia article is very serious about what they do, and every time something is changed, they are alerted.

Anyone who has ever viewed the editors’ discussion behind a Wikipedia article knows what I’m talking about. They take the facts seriously.

In this way, despite what your teachers might lead you to believe, it is hard to insert false information in Wikipedia and let it stand for very long.

Also, every assertion of fact within an article requires a citation.

If it has no citation, Wikipedia will let you know  about it at the top of the page in bold type that the article is in need of additional citations for verification.

So, while yes, it is always good to find a diverse range of sources to support your arguments within your research papers, don’t be afraid of Wikipedia.

It is more reliable than many people think.

­— nperrino@indiana.edu

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