We've all heard it. The information in Wikipedia is unreliable. It's a warning most of us disregard. Wikipedia has become a go-to tool, despite the dire warnings.
Wikipedia is an encyclopedia with a twist. Traditional encycloepdias include voumes of information authored and commonly accepted by the most learned people in a society. Wikipedia began with a democratic experiment. What if, instead of relying on information fed to us by others, we collaboratively authored and edited information. A grand idea...with a troublesome flaw. Open editing makes Wikipedia and other similar reference works particularly susceptible to errors, both unintentional (bias) and purposeful (vandalism).
Avoid it? No. But understand it and use it wisely.
Encyclopedias provide tetriary background information about topics in which students do not already possess expertise. Use of an encyclopedia to begin research is a great first step in gathering information.
Encyclopedias (print and online) provide general information that is commonly "known" (i.e. common knowledge) among experts in the given field. These tertiary resource do NOT belong in your research bibliography. Use encyclopedias to introduce yourself to new topics or gather background information. Look for a list of secondary resources at the bottom of the article. The citations provide important clues to the reliability of the information in the article. Start here, DON'T end here!
Credibility is generally a concept applied to the author, editor, or sponsor of a particular resource. Is the author objective? Is there a particular bias or agenda that may effect the presentation of information?
In the case of print reference works, editorial standards set by the publishing industry guarantee the expertise of the authors (i.e. publisher's edictorial reputation demands credible authors). In the case of Wikipedia (and other open online sources) articles represent the collective wiscom of both experts and amateur enthusiasts. Author agend and bias are difficult to monitor/suppress.
Review the history/discussion tabs. Always check credibility and facts!
Information is accurate if it reflects what is true or correct. Studies have shown that 77% of the information content in Wikipedia is correct, not including technical errors (such as grammar and spelling). This is similar to the accuracy rating of newspapers. This means that Wikipedia is great for background/introductory information.
Always fact check the information. Do other reputable sources agree?
Information is reliable if it is current. For example: Weather readings from yesterday are not a reliable indication of whether or not you should wear a jacket today. Wikipedia and other web-based, open-edited resources are vulnerable in two ways. On one hand, articles may be produced during a time of great interest in a topic and then remained untouched (not updated) well beyond the currency of the information they contain. On the other hand, the ease with which these sources are edited make them subject to unexpected , unpreditable, and sometimes rapid changes.
View the history to check the date edits were submitted.
Library Information and Media Center - Monona Grove High School - Monona, Wisconsin
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