HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
March 5, 2007, Herald Journal

Is ‘Wikipedia’ a credible source for research?

By MARK OLLIG

Wikipedia has been in the news lately. It is the cause of a lawsuit filed by a professional golfer – and college students are being directed away from using it.

History professors at Middlebury College in Vermont have banned using Wikipedia as a cited reference source (although it has not banned its use) per a February 21st New York Times article I read.

The Wikimedia Foundation founded the popular online encyclopedia called “Wikipedia” on January 15, 2001.

The idea of Wikipedia, from what I understand – is to encourage the public to “collaboratively” write articles that are saved in the Wikipedia “encyclopedia” database, which is accessible by anyone. The information can also be edited, added to or changed – by anyone.

Wikipedia says on its website “With rare exceptions its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the Internet. . .”

Wikipedia is a constantly revised “living-document” you might say.

One thing I do find disturbing is what seems to be the unquestioned confidence placed upon Wikipedia as being a reliable source of information.

The expression “Wik-it” is becoming as popular as “Google-it.”

Another concern I have with Wikipedia – there is no independent and credible verification of the information they are making available to the public. How many students are using Wikipedia as a learning and research tool in school?

If Wikipedia’s information is to be considered reliable, people will need to confirm what they find there in other independent references – like libraries, reference books and newspapers.

Could somebody try to add defaming or even slanderous information to Wikipedia – on purpose?

It appears the answer is “yes.”

CNN on February 22nd reported professional golfer Fuzzy Zoeller is suing to find the source of a paragraph written about him on Wikipedia. CNN quotes Zoeller as saying the paragraph on Wikipedia was “defamatory.”

I do not know what that “defamatory” information was because it has already been removed from Wikipedia, but this is an example of what happens when an “Internet Message Board” (which is what I think Wikipedia essentially is,) is allowed to run out of control.

Articles can be posted, without any verification as to its authenticity, and if the article is later found to be incorrect . . . it eventually may be changed, at least it did in Fuzzy’s case.

What are you getting with Wikipedia?

In this humble columnist’s opinion, you are getting mostly anonymous “facts” that you should not assume as being accurate.

The University of Minnesota has some good information when it comes to writing and researching sources. I spent some time exploring their writing links for students at http://writing.umn.edu/home/writinglinks.htm.

Does anyone out there remember “back in the day” something called the “card catalogue” or even “microfilm” that we used in the library to do research with? The World Book and Encyclopedia Britannica also come to mind as trusted and credible sources for research.

Wikipedia is not what I would suggest students in school use to cite as their sole source of information on a subject. In fact, this thought may have already been discussed in their classrooms.

I’m sure there are some sincere individuals out there in Cyberspace who aspire to make available to all of us – credible and verifiable “knowledge contributions” into some phenomenal database, one that can be used for the betterment and enrichment of all humanity, one that will be referenced to by future generations for years to come!

Let’s take a pause here while I figure out what I just said.

I have been out of high school for a few, all right, many years and if Wikipedia was available back in the ‘70s, I probably would have checked it out for ideas or used it as a starting place for research. I would also have gone on to confirm what I found there by means of a trusted, verifiable and credible source. I would have asked the school’s librarian for her advice.

Wikipedia has an online “Community Bulletin Board” portion (blog) where I found some negative bantering going on concerning content being removed, changed or added. It appeared to me there is as much disagreement among the sources providing information as with those correcting what has been submitted.

Wikipedia has a page called: “New Project Pages Seeking Contributors.” It seems they need someone to contribute an article about the Solar System.

No, that is too easy, I would probably write an article about how Wikipedia is “truly. . .out of this world,” but then I would need to cite my sources, or would I?

Is Wikipedia: http://www.wikipedia.org/ a credible source for research?

I suppose this depends upon the authentication of any facts being presented by the person who writes the articles.

I remain unconvinced at this time that Wikipedia is a credible source.

I do like the idea of what Wikipedia wants to be, but it will need to incorporate some kind of scholastic checks and balances.