Wikipedia is Big, But Is It Accurate?

By Marilynne Rudick on June 7, 2010

I grew up in a five-encyclopedia family. The Encyclopedia Britannica was the final word. No one questioned its accuracy. Articles were written by scholars in the field, and the editorial oversight was stringent. To keep it up to date, each year we got a Book of the Year which provided updates if anything significant happened during the year. The Britannica is still available both in print and online. It offers over 120,000 articles written by experts–academics, scientists and Nobel Prize winners.

But when I need information quickly, I turn to Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute.  There are more than 91,000 active contributors –called Wikipedians–working on more than 15,000,000 articles in more than 270 languages.

A Free For All

Wikipedia was started by a group of computer hackers with a big vision:  Free access to the sum of all human knowledge. And rather than thinking of Wikipedia as a technology project, Jimmy Wales, one of Wikipedia’s founders, sees Wikipedia as a social innovation: a way of creating community. Anyone can become part of the community and create, edit, or verify content. It is a giant online writing commune.

The concept of free extends far beyond not paying to access the content. Wikipedia embraces the concept of copyleft. Anyone is free to copy, modify and redistribute content.

Surprisingly, the Wikipedia community operates with few rules. (One of the rules is “Wikipedia does not have firm rules.”) Its underlying principle is grounded in the computer hacker culture, which embraces sharing and assumes good faith: “Unless there is strong evidence to the contrary, assume that people who work on the project are trying to help it, not hurt it.”

A few core policies reinforce Wikipedia’s purpose:

  • Neutral point of view. It’s an encyclopedia, not an editorial.
  • Verifiability. Wikipedia articles are heavy on citations.
  • No original research. As an encyclopedia, Wikipedia’s goal is to summarize existing writing and scholarship.

Is It Accurate?

Does the Wikipedia community work? For the most part it works astonishingly well. While errors occur in content, and there are turf wars, the massive number of contributors and users assure its accuracy. The more popular an article, the more likely it is to be accurate, since the large number of eyeballs policing it ensure that errors are quickly fixed. Because each article contains numerous references, it’s easy for users to check the source of the information to determine credibility and accuracy.  When researchers at the Kimmel Cancer Center looked at entries on 10 forms of cancer, they found that Wikipedia was 98% accurate.

Become a Wikipedian

Like me, you might find the idea of contributing to the world’s largest encyclopedia intimidating. What if I screw it up? Since Wikipedia tracks each change, it’s hard to mess up: you can always revert to the previous version. (To see the log of changes for an article, click on the history tab.) Afraid of committing a grammar offense? A battery of volunteer editors corrects usage errors.

If you are still feeling timid about clicking the edit tab, you can start small. The Help Out section of the Community Portal page contains a list of tasks you can do. (For example, expand an article, copy edit, verify sources). Still not ready to become a full-fledged Wikipedian? Play around with the editing functions in the Sandbox.

Learn More

Categories: Research, Social Networking
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