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Wikipedia has had a huge impact on the ability to quickly research a topic.  Back in the old days, people had to dust off the encyclopedia to get in depth information on a topic, and the information might be decades old.  The world wide web in general helped bring update information to the masses.  Wikipedia took it a step further by creating a central repository for knowledge.

Some people love Wikipedia; others (particularly teachers) dislike it.  The general criticism is that it’s not a reliable source since anyone can edit it.  A high profile example of this was a 2008 edit to the page of Big 10 commissioner Jim Delany which claimed that he shot down proposals of a playoff in NCAA football, “making him a complete and total douchebag.”  While this incident was amusing to some playoff proponents, it was a black eye for Wikipedia.

Is Wikipedia a Reliable Source?

No, definitely not.  Wikipedia won’t even argue this.  Wikipedia doesn’t purport to be a source, but rather as a site that presents data from other sources.  Essentially, Wikipedia is a big research paper, with citations noted within each article.  Original research is explictly forbidden.  The sources themselves must meet the standard of being a reliable source – personal blogs are not allowed.

If you’re using Wikipedia for formal research, you should cite the actual source, rather than the Wikipedia page.  I’ll even take this a step further and suggest reading the source, to ensure that you have the proper context for the information.

Anyone Can Edit Wikipedia

This is true.  You can sign up as an editor on Wikipedia today and immediately start editing articles.  However, if you’re being (in  the words of Jethro Gibbs) a real jackwagon, you can find yourself banned pretty quickly.

In general, disputes on Wikipedia are handled via a dispute resolution policy.  Often, this centers around an article not conforming with Wikipedia’s policy that articles have a neutral point of view (naturally, this is more of a problem with articles of a political nature).

Articles that are particularly prone to vandalism or subject to edit wars (where editors with conflicting viewpoints constantly overwrite each other’s text) can be protected so that only privileged accounts can edit the article (anyone can suggest a change, though).

What’s Going On Behind The Scenes?

At the top of every Wikipedia article, there is a “Discussion” tab.  Click on this tab and you will find a discussion about the content of the article.  Not a general discussion of the topic, but a discussion as it relates to the exact content of the article.  This is often more informative than the actual article itself – it can provide an interesting context to the information in the article.  Take a look at the pages for Barack Obama or Sarah Palin.

You can go a step further and and become a Wikipedia editor yourself.  This can be a responsibility that takes a large amount of your time, or a small amount.  I became an editor several months ago.  No, I haven’t made any sweeping changes.  I’ve made a handful of very small changes (obvious thinks like incorrect links) and contributed to a few discussions in the Discussion tab of a few articles.

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