College students everywhere understand that using Wikipedia as a primary source for a research paper is like committing educational suicide. But according to a number of different studies, articles on Wikipedia are just as accurate as the articles published in academic databases, textbooks, or journals.
Yaacov Lawrence, an assistant professor in Thomas Jefferson University’s Department of Radiation Oncology in Philadelphia, discovered that only 2 percent of the information on Wikipedia “differed from textbook sources.” In his study, he researched articles on 10 different types of cancer, and then compared the information found on Wikipedia to statistics published in the National Cancer Institute’s Physician Data Query, (a peer-reviewed online database). Lawrence graded each entry according to readability as well as word or sentence length, and found that Wikipedia’s articles were actually “more difficult to comprehend.”
“The accuracy [of Wikipedia] was good, but I think that there is more to a good encyclopedia than accuracy,” stated Lawrence. “We found that Wikipedia was better at discussing hard-known facts, but poor at discussing controversial issues.”
Another 2005 study compared articles found on Wikipedia to articles published in Encyclopedia Britannica. In the 42 articles that were sampled in the study, it was discovered that the average Wikipedia article had “4 errors or omissions,” while the average Britannica article had 3. Understandably, Encyclopedia Britannica called the study “fatally flawed,” and proclaimed that the errors in their encyclopedia tended to be “errors of omission,” while Wikipedia’s errors were actually incorrect facts.
Also, in 2008, researchers randomly selected ten history terms to study the content and validity of Wikipedia’s articles. The terms that were selected were: American Civil War, Panama Canal, Dust Bowl, California Gold Rush, Pony Express, Great White Fleet, Abraham Lincoln, War of 1812, Louisiana Purchase, and the New Deal.
When researchers compared the information to entries in the Encyclopedia Britannica, they concluded that Wikipedia’s articles were longer than the articles found in Encyclopaedia Britannica, but there were very few differences between the two sources. However, the researchers did discover that many of the historical articles on Wikipedia contained biased information.
A few months ago The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the majority of college or university students use Wikipedia to gather background information on research topics. 2,318 students participated in the study: 22 percent claimed that they “rarely” or “never used” Wikipedia for their studies, while over half admitted to using Wikipedia for research purposes.
The study also discovered that students majoring in architecture, engineering, or science were more likely to use Wikipedia, and students who attended two-year colleges were “less likely” to use Wikipedia than those who attended four-year colleges.
Wikipedia projects for university and college students
Despite its reputation in the educational community, a number of different universities and colleges from all over the world have been assigning students with Wikipedia projects.
At some institutions, students are given a Wikipedia assignment which requires them to write or make changes to content related to their course material. For instance, at the University of North Carolina, students enrolled in the “American Indian Law, History, and Literature” course have been writing and editing Wikipedia content related to Native American issues, demographics, social statistics, and economic data. Also, students enrolled in a French Revolutionary history course at the College of Idaho have been creating Wikipedia pages which cover the biographical information of various historic individuals they have studied throughout the course.
And at the University of Freiburg in Germany, students in the English Department have been proofreading and translating Wikipedia articles from German to English.
Writing for Wikipedia
Coming straight from the horse’s mouth, Wikipedia reports that since 2001 approximately 91,000 “active contributors” have written over 16,000,000 articles on the self-proclaimed “best free/online encyclopedia in the world.”
Each contribution to the site is reviewed, and Wikipedia employees or “Wiki-nerds” can edit the content of the article at any time. If a sentence does not include original research or a link to a source, then they are taken off the site.
Living up to their reputation, there is even a Wikipedia page dedicated to all of the site’s criticisms. You can read up on the several different cases of Wikipedia users intentionally writing false or misleading information, which gave way to much controversy and criticism of the website.
Wikipedia’s software is “carefully designed to allow easy reversal of editorial mistakes,” and there are nearly a thousand editors who monitor the site closely for “problematic edits and editors.” Users are also able to view the article’s history so they can read the content that has been changed.
Sometimes users may engage in what is called an “edit war,” where writers constantly update or make changes to content which can last hours, days, months, or even years. Because of these “edit wars,” Wikipedia’s software uses a “three-revert rule” so a writer can only change content on a page three times during a 24-hour period. If a writer breaks this rule, they may be blocked from writing on Wikipedia altogether.
Also, if you are interested in editing or updating information on the site, there is even a Wikipedia article dedicated to…writing for Wikipedia.
The article outlines a few tips users must follow before editing or creating a Wikipedia article:
- The article must be neutral, referenced, and encyclopaedic, containing notable, verifiable knowledge.
- Always be wary of any one single source (in any medium — web, print, television or radio), or of multiple works that derive from a single source.
- Where articles have references to external sources (whether online or not) read the references and check whether they really do support what the article says.