Is Wikipedia all that bad as a reference source?

After doing a quick word-search of SDMB for “Wikipedia”, I find it has been mentioned hundreds of times (not surprising) but I can find no recent thread discussing its merits. If this has already been discussed, please tell me and I will drop the subject.

Now, I have been told by some people that Wikipedia is sooooo full or errors and so inaccurate that some teachers and college professors forbid its use as a research tool.

Personally, I find there are many, many, many worthwhile articles. They have millions of entries, including articles in every major language. While I can only read English, French and German, I have almost always been favourably impressed by what I see.

Is Wikipedia really as bad as some people claim? Does anyone have any examples of gross errors? Let’s talk.

I find if useful most of the time that I use it, but you do need to be careful. Some articles are written sloppily, and you do need to watch for vandalism (though that usually get fixed very quickly). On controversial topics, it can be helpful to read the Discussion page. And if I were writing a proper student paper, I would not cite it as the only reference.

We have done this many, many times. As have researchers, who have concluded that Wikipedia is about as accurate as Encyclopedia Brittanica. The problem is that Wikipedia can be edited by any schlub, including people with an axe to grind that can slip a falsehood in under the radar and have it stay there in perpetuity.

That said, there’s no reason to use Wikipedia as a primary source. It’s a starting point. Use the myriad of references that the article contains and that solves that problem. It’s simple.

The good thing about Wikipedia is the list of sources on the bottom of every page. Even if you find that the articles themselves are inaccurate the pages still work great as collections of cites.

I recall reading in a piece by John J. Reilly that Wikipedia “is fast approaching poorly-edited omniscience.” And it is. It’s essentially a central aggregator for knowledge, developing iteratively as errors or accusations of bias are reported to the admins and discussed on the talk pages and, perhaps, corrected. But it’s an endless process. What else could it be, when a new article can be added the same day as the event it describes? That alone shows the essential difference from a paper encyclopedia.

D…uh! You’ll have to translate that for me. You say Wiki good or you say Wiki bad?:confused:

Generally probably not, most of the articles are written to a good standard and are usually very accurate, but you don’t want to be the person who writes that the moon landing took place in 1983 and was funded by MC hammer, and if you don’t know it about the topic you’re reading you can not be sure of how accurate the information is.

I can’t answer with any formal studies, but I can say that in my experience, Wikipedia sucks. Virtually every article that I read there has errors. Just to give one example, I was recently doing some research on Philo of Alexandria. The wikipedia article about him gives the dates for his life as 20 BC - 50 AD. Actually we don’t know the date of his birth or his death. Those dates are estimates, but nothing in the article indicates that.

The truckload of errors, however, is really the minor problem. The major problem is that Wikipeda is badly written and badly organized, has misplaced priorities, and simply doesn’t reach the standards that intellectual material should reach. If we want to raise the next generation of intellectuals, we need to teach them to write well, to approach controversies by studying the arguments from both sides, and to demand thoroughness and intelligence. Wikipedia does none of those things.

I use wikipedia to look up the age of whatever obscure actor is in whatever television program I’m watching, and not much else.

It’s a little of both. :slight_smile:

We’re probably just looking at this all wrong.

I find wikipedia to be be indispensable for casual reference. It’s for instant general factual overviews with a little color, with convenient links for further inquiry. For that it’s just perfect.

I’m not about to cite it for serious research though, anyone who is serious about that sort of thing knows where to look for information anyway. And anything that sets of your bs meter can be instantly fact checked since you’re obviously on the freaking internet anyway.

So yea it’s awesome as long as you know exactly what it is and exactly what it’s for.

Is it possible that Wiki errors get noticed more than mistakes elsewhere, because so many millions of people consult it?

For example, the Encyclopedia Britannica has a good rep, but I remember flipping through a very old edition of the EB (from around 1890s if I recall) and I was shocked to see a refernce to something (maybe literacy) being more prevalent in the “higher races”. The article did not even specify who these “higher races” were. I guess it was taken for granted by editors, writers and readers alike.

Also, how many sets of encyclopedias sat collecting dust in their nice wooden rack (free with purchse) in the front hallway? The kids in the family threw their outdoor clothes on it, but NEVER opened a volume, even though the encyclopedia salesman had assured the parents that this would help their kids do better in school.

How many gross errors are hiding in those books, I wonder?

At least Wiki gets read and critiqued on a constant basis.

It can also get you some of those primary sources you’d actually need to use. It may not always be accurate, but show me a paper encyclopedia that can hyperlink me right to a JACS paper from 1947.

The other thing about Wiki is that one wonders what people mean when they say that it contains a lot of mistakes. Relative to what? I mean, has there ever been an encyclopedia with over **3.5 MILLION **articles in English alone? I make it seven or eight million if you add Spanish, French, German, Russian, Chinese and Japanese to the articles in English. How many articles were there in, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica back when it was only available in print?

Is it not statistically certain that there would be some mistakes?

Does anyone have an example of a real, screaming error that is in Wiki right now? I am not being argumentative, I am just asking. Could you provide the link?

Or even a paper encyclopedia that can tell the rest of us what JACS is.:smiley:

Wait a second, you’re not talking about the solitary sport, are you?

It’s a *great *starting point for any research, and anyone who says otherwise has an agenda. It’s not great for detailed research, but it can point you in the right directions. It’s in the interests of print publications (which want to sell you their book) and universities (which have deals to sell textbooks) to discredit it, because it’s free.

If you want to know some basic facts and a starting point - there is no better place. But you should only use it as a starting point, not a primary reference.

It’s a tool; not a reference.

I find that the articles on obscure or difficult topics tend to be quite good as your average non-informed hack isn’t bright enough or interested enough to edit the article. Entries on celebrities for example are so agenda driven so as to make them not just unreliable but unpleasant.

Wikipedia is most vulnerable to groups of people who strongly believe incorrect things, while the vast majority who know the truth don’t have strong feelings about it. So if there are 30 million Turks who remove references to the Armenian genocide, and nobody else cares much, then they can constantly revert any attempts at accuracy.

And of course, the other major problem is that Wikipedia content is not comprehensive. If people care about Buffy the Vampire Slayer more than the care about Philo of Alexandria, well, you’re going to get 600 articles on every trivial fact about Buffy, and one stub about Philo.

However, the flip side is that your “comprehensive” Encyclopedia Brittanica is going to have 1 good article on Philo, and zero articles about Buffy.

I repeat: Does anyone have an example of a really bad error that is in Wiki right now, that you can link us to?

College professors forbid the use of Wikipedia as a citation in a paper they don’t even try, and, let’s be honest, they could not stop students from using it as a research tool. I had to critique an article in Wikipedia about one facet of the American Revolution in my undergraduate class of the same name. The article I critiqued was pretty good and included up to date scholarly information about the subject (which I have since forgotten).

As a general rule I find Wikipedia to be very useful in order to acquire information about a subject I know little about. It can often be mined for useful secondary and even primary sources on occasion. It isn’t an acceptable source for a research paper but neither is a printed encyclopedia (generally speaking).