Wikipedia: To Cite or Not To Cite

To cite or not to cite Wikipedia has been a question for rich debate in both academic and non-academic communities. Since its launch in 2001 Wikipedia has become the 6th most popular website in terms of visitor traffic, and its reader base is only expanding from there. Heck, even Microsoft has jumped onto the Wikipedia bandwagon, having made an App for its Office programs that connects directly to it. And yet, more often than not, Wikipedia runs into some serious skepticism from most anyone when it comes to whether or not it’s a reliable source. With a readership of over 495 million people, Wikipedia’s reliability is a pretty serious question. Are 495 million readers being fed a load of garbage, or are they being fed a load of some of the best and most collaborative research the world has seen yet? That is the question.


What is Wikipedia, Anyway?

According to Wikipedia itself, “Wikipedia is an online free-content encyclopedia that you can edit and contribute to.” Wikipedia’s launch occurred on January 15, 2001, and it was co-founded by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. The initial idea for a “free-as-in-freedom” encyclopedia came from Richard Stallman in 2000, an idea which primarily proposed that no central organization should have complete control of the editing. This was a revolutionary concept given that the massive majority of encyclopedias predating Wikipedia, such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, were controlled strictly by experts in their field. Currently the tech framework of Wikipedia is supported by the Wikimedia Foundation Inc., but the content doesn’t come from a set of few doctoral students. The content comes from everywhere.


So… Even I Could Make Edits?

Yes, you, even you, could become a “Wikipedian”- a volunteer who helps contribute to the massive enterprise that is the Wikipedia encyclopedia. You’ll need a neutral point of view, some time on your hands, and a passionate knowledge for a subject, but that’s about all. You don’t have to be registered to contribute, but if you create an account with Wikipedia you can communicate with other editors, start new pages, rename pages, upload images, and so on. Visit the Wikipedian page here to find out more about how you can be a part of contributing to the global effort of creating an online and free encyclopedia.


Ok, But… How Is that Reliable?

Ah, and here we find ourselves at the crux of the problem- if anyone, and I mean anyone, can contribute to Wikipedia, how can it possibly be a reliable source of information? How can anyone know what is real, and what isn’t? This has been the subject of study basically since Wikipedia’s birth. When you give the people complete freedom with a knowledge base like Wikipedia, what happens? Chaos, or harmony? Only two years after Wikipedia was launched IBM researchers did a study on its accuracy. IBM’s 2003 conclusion was that Wikipedia had “surprisingly effective self-healing capabilities” and that “vandalism [was] usually repaired extremely quickly- so quickly that most users will never see its effects.” In 2005 the journal Nature said that Wikipedia had a similar rate of “serious errors” to the Encyclopaedia Britannica- an established source with only scholars writing for it.

However, that doesn’t mean that Internet trolls haven’t found their way into Wikipedia. A biographical article about a fictional 18th century anti-slavery ship owner was so successful that a French presidential candidate mentioned him with praise, and other similar controversies have arisen due to some very creative, and evidently very bored, writers. Defamatory and false statements are also not allowed on Wikipedia, but a few have slipped through, including the article about John Seigenthaler in 2005. Given that every change made on Wikipedia pages is recorded on a page history and is trackable, even these troll articles eventually get quashed and accounted for, albeit sometimes a long time after they’re made.


In academic circles? No. Jimmy Wales himself said that he didn’t think people should cite Wikipedia, but for that matter neither should they cite Britannica or any other encyclopedias, either. Sorry, college students- if you’re writing a paper, don’t include that Wikipedia hyperlink. However, that doesn’t mean Wikipedia is a bad or unreliable source when it comes to digging into the background of almost any topic you can think of. At this point, Wikipedia is a juggernaut when it comes to subject matter. As a starting place, there’s almost no better knowledge base to turn to. With thousands upon thousands of volunteer contributors, Wikipedia has grown to a point where it eclipses nearly all other resources.


We Can Work Together After All

What started out as rather a ludicrous idea (letting anybody edit your encyclopedia!) has turned into a stunningly successful social experiment. Ultimately, when it comes to determining whether you should cite or not cite Wikipedia, choose not to cite it- but only on paper. For your own educational purposes, don’t skip Wikipedia- start with Wikipedia. Better yet, contribute to Wikipedia after you’ve done your own research and have found things that the original Wikipedia page doesn’t have. The beauty of it all is that you have the freedom to contribute; you have the freedom of your own voice. Wikipedia isn’t some dusty book that you have to check out from the library and hunt down using a numerical system. Wikipedia is a living, breathing giant, and it’s waiting for and welcoming whatever knowledge it is that you have to offer.