Wikipedia: It’s the crowdsourced knowledge engine that our whole planet can freely read and edit. It’s the collaborative effort of 300,000+ people writing in 294 languages. But it’s more than that: It’s a taboo!
Students, you know what I’m talking about. You’re writing a paper, you Google your topic, and the search returns that first, magical article: the Wiki page. Refreshingly free of tedious language and academic abstractions, it gives you what you need. You go to Encyclopedia Britannica. You look up the article on your topic. You see a few dry, grammatically obsessed lines interspersed with… the exact same facts you saw on Wiki.
“Good enough,” you think, and you footnote it.
Maybe you get fancy. Instead of looking for another encyclopedic source, you cleverly scroll down to Wikipedia’s list of references. You open the pages, skim them for relevance, and add them to your bibliography.
If I were a betting woman, I’d bet I could count on one hand the number of four-year college grads who can’t recount these experiences.
From here, you might think my argument goes, “Everyone already cites Wikipedia by proxy, so let’s be honest and give the site the credit it deserves.” But in fact, there are much better reasons to consider Wikipedia a viable, legitimate source, both inside and outside of school.
Wikipedia’s credibility vs. that of conventional academic sources
In several studies and surveys, experts have been called in to evaluate Wikipedia articles for accuracy and completeness. Repeatedly, Wikipedia scores high on accuracy and has in some cases been found to have a similar proportion of errors to Encyclopedia Brittanica.
Although there are definitely inaccuracies, Wikipedia’s main weakness is incompleteness. So, while the facts you’re reading on Wikipedia are likely correct, some important information might be missing from the entry. This suggests that Wikipedia can be trusted as a source of facts, but it shouldn’t be your only source.
Interestingly, Wikipedia is more impartial than a number of ‘official’ textbooks. Consider this case in Texas: In 2010, James McKinley reported for The New York Times that nearly 5 million of Texas’ textbook-reading students saw Thomas Jefferson (coiner of the phrase “separation of church and state”) erased from a list of figures whose writings inspired the revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries — and replaced by the 13th century’s Thomas Aquinas.
California, perhaps Texas’ greatest political rival, has had similar problems. In California public schools, fifth-graders use a textbook by Joy Hakim called A History of US. When historian Alice Whealey’s son came home from school with the book, Whealey published a detailed complaint in Volume 12 of The Textbook Letter to inform parents and teachers that starting in the very first chapter, Hakim had blatantly invented historical “facts” about Athens, Rome and Islamic Spain.
On Wikipedia, on the other hand, vandalism and bias are reported to administrators and corrected almost instantaneously. Many of us have experienced this self-correction firsthand: just try to add a sentence like, “The Godfather is the best movie ever made,” to the movie’s Wiki page. Refresh the page, and your addition will be gone. Thanks to committed paid administrators as well as a passionate army of volunteer watchmen, Wikipedia remains generally free of text and image vandalism.
“Slants” (subtle biases) on Wikipedia
To be fair, most critics of Wikipedia are more concerned about subtler biases, called “slants.” So, let’s talk about that.
In a 2012 essay called “Is Wikipedia Biased?” published by the American Economic Review, researchers Shane Greenstein and Feng Zhu analyze Wikipedia in search of slanted articles. They conclude that one particular group of Wikipedia articles introduces slants: articles related to U.S. politics, especially those discussing the most recent several decades. A randomly selected article about U.S. politics will slant in one direction or another. However, the researchers conclude that if you read several related articles, their alternating slants will aggregate to a neutral point of view.
The economic perspective
Finally, for all you libertarians out there, Wikipedia has a major advantage based on Hayekian free-market economics. In 1945, economist Friedrich Hayek published “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” in which he argues that centrally planned systems will never collect and use knowledge from a large group as efficiently as a free-market system will. Wikipedia exemplifies Hayek’s vision: It is a decentralized, free-market model that aggregates human knowledge better than an elite team of experts ever could.
Those who deny the value of Wikipedia as an academic source object not to its content but to this philosophy. The prevailing image of Wikipedia as unreliable due to its lack of authority is laughable; Wikipedia is reliable precisely because Jimmy Wales and his small, nimble team supply it with the perfect amount of authority — just enough to be able to prevent organized fringe groups from sabotaging the site’s neutrality.
Wikipedia is not anarchy. It’s a perfect demonstration of what people can accomplish in a well-monitored free market with a small and simple set of rules.
The human element
I opened with what Wikipedia is; I’ll close with what it is to me. Wikipedia is a form of intimacy. There, for a short time, people who disagree about sports, religion, and politics come together and help each other. Wikipedia is a peaceful dialogue among strangers around the world who, in some cases, are literally at war. What’s more powerful than that?
When academics step up and acknowledge the value and power of Wikipedia, they’ll start contributing to it — and that leadership will make this highly accessible treasure trove of knowledge even better for everyone on earth.
This article is a revised version of a piece first published in the Fordham Observer.