Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger created Wikipedia in 2001, with the intent that every single person on the planet be given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. Thus, when you arrive at the home page, you are greeted with: “Welcome to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.”
In Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, Richardson says, “…every time you access Wikipedia or most any other wiki for that matter, you do so as Editor in Chief. And it’s that freedom that has made Wikipedia the phenomenon it is as tens of thousands of Editors in Chief, people just like you and me, take on the job of collecting the sum of human knowledge.” Wikipedia has more than 75,000 active contributors, and almost 2,270,000 articles in English (Wikipedia).
Is Wikipedia a Reliable Source for Information?
A typical first reaction might be to question the reliability of something that is open and available to anyone to change. We don’t exactly live in a utopia; people make mistakes! What about vandals? Many people are skeptical that what is made “wrong” on Wikipedia will be made “right” by other collaborators.
However, “wikis are generally designed with the philosophy of making it easy to correct mistakes, rather than making it difficult to make them. Thus, while wikis are very open, they provide a means to verify the validity of recent additions to the body of pages” (Wikipedia). Most wikis have a way of looking at any recent changes. Often this is a list of all the recent edits. Therefore, a watchful eye can change back anything which has been altered inappropriately.
University of Buffalo professor, Alex Halavais, tested the facilitation of corrections made on Wikipedia, and found that after creating 13 purposeful errors on Wikipedia, all of them were changed back within a few hours. Furthermore, Wikipedia was compared to Encyclopedia Britannica; Wikipedia was found to be only slightly less accurate (Richardson). Perhaps this is surprising to the skeptics, but it does help build the case for the collaboration!
It is interesting to note that Wikipedia is an example of a wiki which follows “soft security” principles. This means that it uses discussion pages, history, policies and guidelines, in contrast to traditional document control with password protected authorization.
While it is important to be aware that wikis, by their nature, are susceptible to misinformation, Wikipedia can not be completely discredited. However, caution should be used in referring to Wikipedia as a primary source. Rather, it provides an excellent starting point for one’s research, by providing background information, which should be followed up and validated by other reliable sources.