In theory, Wikipedia can’t possibly work. After all, it’s an encyclopedia written and edited by anyone who wants to be an encyclopedia author. So can it ever be a legitimate research source?
In serious research, we prefer to work from the original sources whenever that is practical. Nevertheless, when researching a field with which we are not familiar, it can be very helpful to start with an encyclopedia article in order to get an overview of the topic that can guide the direction of our research effort.
I don’t expect that an encyclopedia article will give me deep insights into a topic. Rather, it will provide me with a measure of the breadth of the topic.
For some topics, good specialized encyclopedias are available. For example, my wife is a GP and has access to a number of medical reference encyclopedias. For other topics, a general purpose encyclopedia may be all that is available, and is often sufficient.
So, when looking up a general purpose encyclopedia, would one ever prefer to use Wikipedia as opposed to, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica? Yes, I think so, and for a number of reasons.
- Although in theory Wikipedia can’t possibly work, in practise it works rather well. Although any old fool can add misinformation to Wikipedia, or even vandalise whole articles, it turns out that on average each contributor improves more than they destroy. Over time, with millions of contributions, we see continuing improvements in the coverage, detail and quality of Wikipedia.
- Wikipedia is up-to-date. If something happens today, it will be reflected in Wikipedia within a week (if not within an hour).
- Wikipedia has a policy of not taking a position on controversial issues. Instead, their “neutral point of view” policy requires that both sides of an issue are acknowledged. If you want to delve further into a controversy, Wikipedia’s article discussion pages and article revision history will provide plenty of that!
- Wikipedia also covers many topics that conventional encyclopedias don’t touch. You might find the occasional encyclopedic mention of April Fool’s Day, but you won’t find a listing of stunts to equal Wikipedia’s April Fool article. And I doubt you’ll find any other encyclopedia with articles about such diverse cultural topics as Schoolies Week and Slashdot Subculture.
When Nature compared the accuracy of Wikipedia and Britannica, they found on average three errors per article in Britannica compared to four in Wikipedia, however the number of errors considered to be “serious” was the same for both. Considering that the average length of the Wikipedia articles was more than double that of the Britannica articles, it’s clear that Wikipedia’s error rate per thousand words is substantially lower.
As an added bonus, the Wikipedia website – unlike the Britannica website – doesn’t bombard me with pop-under advertisements.
So yes, for all these reasons I think there is a genuine role for Wikipedia in the preliminary stages of a research project.