Recently, an Irish student put a fake quote on a Wikipedia entry for a French composer, which got used by several obituaries on mainstream newspapers (Student’s Wikipedia hoax dupes newspapers). He was doing it for a social experiment and was pretty surprised how far it had gone, eventually emailing the newspapers himself to tell them the quote was fabricated by him. The journalists would have gotten into a lot of trouble for misusing the online encyclopaedia as a reliable source – but how does one correctly approach Wikipedia?
Wikipedia – love it or hate it, it is one of the most popular and resourceful sites today; catering for over 200 languages, with over 2 million articles just in English covering topics from Britney to Bronchitis . But problems like the sham composer quote arise when people expect the online encyclopaedia to be something that it’s not – a totally reliable, credible academic resource. Even the creators of the site warns students not to cite it for their papers as an academic source. Because that’s not what Wikipedia is for, nor does it claim to be so (for more on what Wikipedia is not go here).
So what is Wikipedia’s true purpose? Bruns (2008, p.103) claims that the collaborative online encyclopaedia’s aim is to present representations of knowledge, which, unlike traditional encyclopaedias, does not try to “encapsulate the current state of accepted knowledge itself”. What this means is that the articles are an aggregation of information that represent what is known by people of a particular subject, which is continuously updated as new or different information is found. To achieve this, it incorporates the “open participation and communal evaluation” principles of Produsage by allowing anyone to edit (Bruns 2008, p.103).
Obviously, as discussed above, there’s been a lot of crticism by people’s misconception of Wikipedia, but in this blog let’s have look at a few unique benefits of checking out Wikipedia.
Here are four correct ways to approach Wikipedia:
- As a starting point to research: Two of the major principles of Wikipedia are called ‘No Original Research and Verifiability where contributors are prohibited to present their own ideas or conclusions and are required to cite other sources instead. Therefore, what they have are “second or third-hand summaries…[that] are excellent starting points for learning about something” (Liu 2007). The articles are easier to find, read and understand than traditional textbooks, online thesises, etc. and can often lead to more credible resources through its reference lists.
- To get an unbiased view: The other major principle of Wikipedia is Neutral Point of View where it allows multiple perspectives to be presented without favouring one or the other. This is done by allowing users to add different perspectives, as long as they’re verifiable, and monitored through community evaluation so that one perspective is not valued as valid over the other (Bruns 2007, p.131). Because the source of information is more decentralised, it is more likely that you will get the full picture rather than one POV which you’re more likely to get through blogs or organisational websites.
- To find information on contemporary and unique topics: Because it allows easy editing without limitations of time-consuming review processes or print and distribution processes, often the most up-to-date information is found on Wikipedia and Liu (2007) cliams it can often have comprehensive coverage on very recent topics, often from popular culture and technology. Some acamedics have even referred to Wikipedia to describe participatory culture and contemporary cultural opinion (Spiro 2008). However, again because these articles are not conclusive it is advised to carefully check the ‘history’ and ‘discussion’ tabs to evaluate the validity of information (Liu 2007). You can also find information on the most obscure topics as well, which may not be covered by traditional encyclopaedic sources.
- To be part of a knowledge-sharing community: Finally, Wikipedia is in the end about a online community that is passionate about sharing knowledge. While it is argued that most contributions are made by a minimal critical mass, the quality of the site will improve as more users contribute to refine the content (Brusn 2007, p.111). To encourage this, Wikipedia encourages more people to take part in bettering the site through providing tutorials and tips on how to contribute to articles.
So why not visit the site to give, rather than to take, for a change?
Bruns, A. 2008. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production To Produsage. New York: Peter Lang
Brisbane Times. 2009. Student’s Wikipedia hoax dupes newspapers. http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/technology/students-wikipedia-hoax-dupes-newspapers-20090507-aw7k.html (accessed 9 May 2009).
Liu, A. 2007. Course Materials:Student Wikipedia Use Policy. http://www.english.ucsb.edu/faculty/ayliu/courses/wikipedia-policy.html (accessed 11 May 2009).
Patrick. 2006. Founder of Wikipedia Advise Against Academic Use of Wiki. http://kairosnews.org/founder-of-wikipedia-advises-against-academic-use-of-wiki (Accessed 10 May 2009).
Spiro, L. 2008. Is Wikipedia Becoming a Respectable Academic Source? http://digitalscholarship.wordpress.com/2008/09/01/is-wikipedia-becoming-a-respectable-academic-source/ (accessed 10 May 2009).