Wikipedia: Reliable Or Not?

Categories: News |

Elizabeth Farquhar

Just as not everything you pick up off the shelf at a bookstore or library is guaranteed to be 100% accurate, the material being published on line every day isn’t always true. Sometimes that’s because the information is out of date. Even though millions of people around the world are constantly adding and updating websites, the pace of scientific advancement and the new research being done in fields from astronomy to zoology has created an avalanche of data that even high-speed internet connections can’t always handle. However, one of the big differences between print and online resources is that updates can be done quickly and easily on the internet. Printed books and journals take time to produce and distribute. In the virtual world, correcting and republishing an encyclopedia entry is often a matter of minutes. In the real world of paper-based publications, it’s impossible to reprint hundreds of thousands of copies of an entire multi-volume set of encyclopedias every time a new piece of information about the surface of Pluto needs to be added to Volume 18 (Plants to Raymund of Tripoli). Some printed reference works haven’t even gotten around to changing their text to show Pluto’s new designation as a “minor planet” – and that decision was made by the International Astronomical Union in 2006.

Online encyclopedias like Wikipedia are frequently more accurate than printed publications, simply because of this faster updating speed. But there’s another big difference between a book in print and a book online that makes some people question Wikipedia’s accuracy and reliability. Think about this for a minute: if you’re looking at a page in a printed book, it’s obvious when someone else has changed the text. You’ll see words crossed out, notes penciled into the margins, even entire pages missing. When someone changes information in Wikipedia, those changes aren’t always obvious. Worse, since almost anyone can change almost any information, there is no guarantee that whoever made the change knows more about the topic than the original author. On the other hand, many Wikipedia entries are created and maintained by people who know a lot about the topic. For example, you’ll find updated links to eReflect’s product pages on the official eReflect Wikipedia page, as well as links to the most recent reviews and other articles that help you find out more about eReflect’s educational software.

So of the almost 5,000,000 entries (counting only the ones in English) that have been added to Wikipedia since it started in 2001, which are reliable? Most of them, say experts. The argument about Wikipedia’s reliability started not long after the website went on line, and it’s still going on today. In 1995 a study published by the journal Nature noted that Wikipedia entries were about as accurate as the entries on the same topics in the online version of one of the best-known print encyclopedias. A study in 2014 published by the online journal PLOS ONE compared Wikipedia entries on 100 common drugs with information found in a current pharmacology textbook and concluded that the Wikipedia material was almost 100% accurate.

In addition, more than 75,000 people worldwide act as knowledge editors, helping to ensure that when information is added, it’s as accurate as possible. The editors also flag information that isn’t backed up by other sources, so it’s easy to see where any gaps or inaccuracies are in the online article. In fact, when Wikipedia entries are criticized, it’s almost always due to “errors of omission” – something is missing, rather than something is wrong. The editors at Wikipedia have said from the beginning that their goal was never to be the source for all information on every topic. Instead, they want people to treat the online reference as a good starting point for more detailed research, using the many links provided by knowledgeable contributors.

The number of users making a positive contribution to the Wikipedia database is much higher than the number of people who accidentally or deliberately add incorrect material. With the editors’ help, the millions of people who keep the world’s knowledge in the global reference files maintained by Wikipedia have produced a useful, reliable, and up-to-date resource that researchers can use with confidence.

About the Author: Elizabeth Farquhar is the Content Expert for eReflect – creator of 7 Speed Reading which is currently being used by tens of thousands of happy customers in over 110 countries.

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