Wikipraise for Wikipedia

Wikipraise for Wikipedia

7/12/2008

Kenneth Burchfiel


Ever since its conception, Wikipedia has been singled out as the antagonist of academics. Teachers who grew up with libraries and print encyclopedias often regard it as an intellectual cesspool, serving only to confuse and misinform unsuspecting readers. Having relied on Wikipedia for much of my crystallized knowledge base, I can only say that the site deserves another look.

The concept of “Wikis,” sites that allow guests to edit and create new pages, lies at the very center of the internet’s soul. Boundaries to publication are broken into binary code and thrown away; users can tap into an ever-growing pool of knowledge without having to pay a cent. Sites like Wikipedia embody the free nature—mentally and financially—of the internet.

What’s the problem with “The Free Encyclopedia,” then? Simple, say professors and the general public alike. If anyone can make edits to a page, how in the world can one trust a single sentence of a Wikipedia article? Haven’t there been piles of news stories about misinformation and outright bias in the program? Such questions are enough to fuel deep suspicion about the site, not to mention outright dismissal.

I’ll start by acknowledging such statements. Yes, non-factual information exists on the site, either maliciously or by accident. (I myself have made a few less-than-academic edits.) There’s also bias, too, though much of it comes from corporations who want their company’s page to read like an advertisement. However, what most Wiki-Skeptics don’t understand is that the encyclopedia’s site is safeguarded by a host of editors, automated programs and an “Arbitration Committee” that work to keep false information off the pages. Four minutes after I made my aforementioned changes to a chemical page, an editor had already removed the content and sent me a warning message. Lack of editorial oversight? I think not.

Indeed, the “anyone can contribute” status works in Wikipedia’s favor. I know of no other encyclopedia that devotes an entire article, complete with graphics and a respectable amount of copy, to the West Falls Church station of the Washington Metro. Nor can any print encyclopedia compare either to Wikipedia’s girth and update schedule.

A quick comparison to the Encyclopedia Britannica makes the latter look almost embarrassing. Wikipedia’s English-language section has over 2.5 million articles; the E.B, about 250,000—less than both the Portuguese and Polish sections of Wikipedia, to name a few. Even if one ignores scope, the pages on the internet’s favorite encyclopedia are updated with an admirable speed. Wikipedia’s Moldova article was updated 24 times on the 10th of July by seven different users; articles in the print version of the E.B., on the other hand, can go years without significant updates. (Source: you guessed it.)

My final point in favor of Wikipedia might be the most significant of all: footnotes. Even if one doesn’t trust Wikipedia as a research and study tool, they can find a plethora of sources for a topic in the “footnotes” section of the topic’s article. Let us suppose that someone wants to learn more about Christianity, but isn’t sure about the validity of the 8,700 word overview that Wikipedia offers. They need only scroll down to the bottom of the article, where 194 citations and 12 suggestions for “Further Reading” await them. This is one area where the website shines; even of one disregards the article, most of Wikipedia’s main articles have a series of footnotes and links that can transmit readers to professional overviews. The site might not be the end-all source for in-depth study, but it certainly makes an excellent research portal.

The mere mention of the “W-word” in educational circles is enough to make many teachers cringe. And yet, if one sees Wikipedia for what it is: a massive knowledge portal that offers updates, citations and reading suggestions, they might be willing to give the site another chance.


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