Wikipedia is both an incredibly useful resource, and the absolute bane of a teacher/information professional’s life. It’s become ubiquitous as a source of all knowledge, and a recent spat with the Encyclopedia Britannica didn’t settle the matter, it only added fuel to the fire.
I use Wikipedia all the time to look up TV shows and people I’ve never heard of, as well as finding a good source of references. A good Wiki article is an absolute mine of information, as long as you’re willing to scroll down to the bottom of the page and check where the information came from. If there’s nothing there, then you have to take the information in the article with a pinch of salt.
Personally, I tend to find that the factual information in Wikipedia is normally pretty accurate. It’s the interpretation I find a little suspect. So the science pages are actually pretty good (or so my chemist husband tells me) because they’re pretty much copied out of a book. But historical or political pages are much more vulnerable to bias – famously, the George W Bush page has to be locked down to avoid one side or the other putting their own spin on the events of his Presidency.
I took a trip over to the web 2.0 wiki and added a few lines about the wiki we’re using at the Law Library for managing our reclassification project – since the wiki isn’t live yet, there’s not too much to say, and I expect Helen (who’s done more work on it than I have) will add more when she gets to this “Thing”. I also had an interesting time glancing through notes about various Web 2.0 around Oxford and particularly the thought that has gone into how they’re used. We use so many at the Law Library, that I’m not actually sure we need any more, but I like to see why libraries have chosen what they’ve chosen. Because in the end, all these things are just tools for doing the job, and each library will need different things from them.
And since I seem unable to disentangle Things 17 and 18, I’ve put more thoughts about Wikipedia under the jump below
As I said above, I’m a big fan of Wikipedia, and for things that aren’t important, I think it’s fine to use it as a source of information. What does wind me up is when I attend academic/librarian events and Wikipedia is used to provide the definition quote. You know the kind of thing I mean:
“[subject we are talking about] is defined in Wikipedia as…”
I will absolutely advise people to have a glance at Wikipedia to get a rough idea of the subject, and it’s true that many of the editors will be experts in their field. I can go to the Bodleian Law Library page and add content, and since I work here, it’s likely that the information will be accurate and – to a certain extent – authoritative. But that’s me. Reading the article, you have no way of telling whether or not it was written by an expert. You have know way of knowing whether the person went to a textbook or the online Encyclopedia Britannica and copied the information out, or if they just made up something that sounded good.
And that’s the point. I always regard information without provenance should be regarded with deep suspicion. If I don’t know who’s said something, I have no way whatsoever of judging its accuracy. With Wikipedia in particular, there’s a certain logical fallacy that I think people use, which runs something like, “I know this subject and the Wikipedia article about it was accurate, therefore Wikipedia is accurate”. I just don’t think you can generalise like that.
Nowadays, most people have access to peer-reviewed, edited sources of information like the OED and the Enc.Brit. through their local library. When I’m at work, I can click straight through, and when I’m at home, I use my library card number. There’s no excuse for going to Wikipedia because it’s the ‘only source available’. It isn’t. What it is is an incredibly useful quick reference tool. Some of the sources linked at the bottom of articles are genuine, scholarly articles and incredibly helpful. If I was teaching this to undergraduates, there’d be no point telling them not to use Wikipedia, because they’re going to anyway. The least we can do is teach them how to use it intelligently.
As an addendum to that, I’d also add that in-house wikis for knowledge gathering are quite a different beast to the behemoth that is Wikipedia (which is why I’ve been careful to use its whole name all the way through). One thing I like about internal wikis is that they’re an easy, searchable way to hold the knowledge of an organisation, without needing a complicated set-up. Once our reclassification Wiki is live, we’re going to encourage people to use the discussion board at the bottom of pages so that if they have questions or clarifications, they can be held close to the information they refer to. It saves a reclassifier having to wade through a great big manual, as they can just search for what they need, and add more if we’ve missed something out. No one can think of everything, and a wiki takes definite advantage of the “many hands/light work” theory.
Athough you have to watch out for is the “too many cooks/spoiled broth” one.