78
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I ask this question because in school, students are always told "do not quote wikipedia" or that "Do not believe everything you see on Wikipedia, we are teachers and we know when something is wrong there". (The latter being more common in my case) Anyway, Wikipedia does have an article about it here. Still the question stands about whether it is reliable, and if it is, when or if it will be permissible in the classroom.

Have any studies been made on the reliability of Wikipedia?

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    Don't think this is a the right place for that question. I'll say that Wiki is ok, but mostly when I look up something in it, I go down and hit the references. – Mike Apr 10 '11 at 16:45
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    Side question. Assume I accept that wikipedia is asymptotically correct, possibly even authoritative. (And that is, in fact how I treat it.) How do I know that this version of the page I have in front of me is good? Well, you check the edit history, and use look at the sources listed, of course. But if you are doing that, are you really treating the sources as reliable? – dmckee Apr 10 '11 at 22:00
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    Just a comment. For subjects I am not familiar with, Wikipedia seems pretty good. For subjects I do know something about (such as software optimization), Wikipedia calcifies widely-held misconceptions. So take your pick. – Mike Dunlavey Apr 11 '11 at 0:52
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    Let's keep in mind that paper does not convey any inherent benefit, but people still tend to have that prejudice. For example, if you reference a printed book as a source for your essay, your teacher will accept that without a question, but if you quote wikipedia they'll reject the reference. The prejudice is that the teacher has no idea about the validity of the printed words in the book, but gives them more weight just because they are on paper. However, lots of books get printed without fact checking by experts. Books don't get peer-reviewed, but wikipedia entries do. – Kenny Wyland Apr 11 '11 at 23:00
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    I assume you are talking about English Wikipedia, but it would be nice to state that explicitly. Because many users may assume that what is true for English Wikipedia is true for every other Wikipedia. I.e. if en.wikipedia is reasonably accurate, so is every other wikipedia. In practice they are unrelated as far as info and even rules go, and the quality varies wildly. (P.S. I am talking "legit" Wikipedia in different languages, not about conservapedias or other bs). – user288 Apr 13 '11 at 8:59
55
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In December 2005, the science magazine Nature conducted a study to determine whether Wikipedia was as accurate as traditional encyclopedias, namely the Encyclopedia Britannica.

In Study: Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica, Daniel Terdiman summarizes the study results:

Wikipedia is about as good a source of accurate information as Britannica, the venerable standard-bearer of facts about the world around us, according to a study published this week in the journal Nature. ...

For its study, Nature chose articles from both sites in a wide range of topics and sent them to what it called "relevant" field experts for peer review. The experts then compared the competing articles--one from each site on a given topic--side by side, but were not told which article came from which site. Nature got back 42 usable reviews from its field of experts.

In the end, the journal found just eight serious errors, such as general misunderstandings of vital concepts, in the articles. Of those, four came from each site. They did, however, discover a series of factual errors, omissions or misleading statements. All told, Wikipedia had 162 such problems, while Britannica had 123. That averages out to 2.92 mistakes per article for Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia.

Of course, what makes Wikipedia different from a standard encyclopedia is that it can be updated by anyone and those updates appear immediately. When there's a particular hot topic item in the news, it's not uncommon for its Wikipedia entry to be updated rapidly, both by level-headed and factual participants and by more extreme, agenda-driven actors on both sides of the issue at hand. Consequently, when you read an entry at Wikipedia it's important to bear in mind that what you are reading now might include some dogmatic if not outright incorrect statements.

As Bibhas noted, it's important to check the sources and references. I also would encourage you to note the history of the piece you are reading. If there were many edits in a short window of time that may be a sign that there is some back and forth going between two "sides," which could imply that the information presented might not be as objective as it was prior to the volley of edits.

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    I dislike it when people cite the Nature study. It puts factual errors and omissions at the same level. Most errors on Wikipedia were factual errors; most errors on Britannica were omissions, things that the experts feel should have been mentioned. Factual errors are obviously graver mistakes, since it is misinformation. – Borror0 Apr 11 '11 at 0:43
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    Wikipedia has changed a great deal in the last 6 years... – zzzzBov Apr 11 '11 at 2:43
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    @Borror0 Quantity always trumps quality, where Wikipedia is Quantity, and Britannica is sometimes Quality. While you shouldn't rely on Wikipedia wholly for a critical part of your Nuclear Warhead project you're working on in your spare time, for 99.9% of cases, using Wikipedia is OK. – Mateen Ulhaq Apr 11 '11 at 3:28
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    Note that the study does not exactly cover what the OP is asking for. Reliable is not the same thing as accurate. I would say that neither Encyclopaedia Britannica nor Wikipedia are reliable sources, although they are somewhat accurate. – Sklivvz Apr 11 '11 at 5:51
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    The problem with this analysis is the Wikipedia has a long tail of articles that very few people care about. These articles are not very reliable – Casebash Apr 11 '11 at 12:11
19
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The source of the data in Wikipedia is people like us, who knows about a certain topic or domain. And the sources of those data are shared at the bottom of most article. (For example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horse#Sources.) You can check that on every single page as it has a discussion section where questions against the data, if any, are raised and proofs are provided if necessary (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Pearl_Harbor). You yourself can raise question if you want to, they'll answer.

Hence, quoting Wikipedia is far more reliable than quoting a teacher him/herself. As the data is available there in each and every article, it has been filtered for years by millions of teachers like the one who teaches you.

If your teacher still don't agree, go to Wikipedia, check the sources of their data at the bottom of the page and provide that to the teacher.

P.S. - If sources are not available, check the references. They are always there...

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    Welcome to Skeptics! Ironically, Wikipedia alone is not considered an authoritative reference for answers. Please add links to more authoritative resources! :-) – Sklivvz Apr 10 '11 at 18:02
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    @Sklivvz: I would think Wikipedia is an authoritative reference for Wikipedia policies. – David Thornley Apr 10 '11 at 23:57
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    @David: but ironically it can't be used as such here... – jwenting Apr 11 '11 at 6:37
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    @Skilvvz I guess you didn't read my post. I did NOT use Wikipedia as reference. I merely used it as example. I hope you'll understand that after you read it. – Bibhas Apr 17 '11 at 6:47
  • That's not what I got from it. I got that the user didn't want to leave two comments. But it's a good point that some might mistake it for that, possibly best to separate the two statements. (I'll do that when welcoming new users myself.) – neilfein Jul 10 '11 at 3:07
10
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I have personally edited incorrect information on Wikipedia. Corporations are known to use Wikipedia as a tool to steer their public image. Sinbad is still among us. Still, wikipedia is great as a preliminary survey on most topics. I use it all the time. Just don't use it as a source on an academic paper and you'll be fine. Your teachers and/or profs are trying to get you to dig a littler deeper, that's all.

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    Don't use it here either! :-) – Sklivvz Apr 10 '11 at 22:11
  • There are apparently academic sources using it... Look at the line in the question :) – picakhu Apr 11 '11 at 0:28
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    I've corrected many errors on Wikipedia over time, usually only to see the correction reverted to the previous incorrect information shortly after. There's a LOT of bad data on Wikipedia, and when that data relates to politically sensitive topics, correcting it can create an editing war between those trying to get the truth out and those pushing a political agenda relying on a lie (either deliberately or through ignorance). – jwenting Apr 11 '11 at 6:40
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    @Sklivvz: Are you serious? I use links to wikipedia often when doing SO. I think most people understand it isn't gospel, but it has reasonable usefulness in making a point. – Captain Claptrap Apr 11 '11 at 21:45
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    @Captain: so it's our faq-level consensus here. What I want is irrelevant. The community has decided not to accept unreferenced or poorly referenced answers. And - if may add - this question is answerable via reputable sources (see the accepted answer). – Sklivvz Apr 11 '11 at 22:02
8
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Wikipedia is an excellent source of general information when starting research. An an example, I'm writing a review of a paper about Leishmania, and the Wikipedia articles that are related and relevant to me (Leishmania, Vaults, 7SL RNA) are quick and easy reads, and loaded with great references to further papers which makes finding them straightforward if not trivial. I might even use the same fact as the Wikipedia article, but it's senseless to cite WP, which in-turn cites the origin of the fact.

Outside of the more scientific topics, however, the amount of references can steeply drop off, which means it won't be of much direct help for any formal research, though it can still help familiarize you with the topics.

Wikipedia articles are not uniformly edited by any stretch of the imagination. Making generalizations about Wikipedia as a whole based on some sort of average quality metric of their articles is dubious.

If anyone (e.g. your teachers) say that "Wikipedia is wrong on point X, as it's Y", that doesn't absolve them of the need to provide some sort of proof or evidence on it as well. Sure, you might be inclined to believe some source above another, but belief shouldn't mix with fact.

3
votes

Here's Wikipedia on The reliability of Wikipedia:

A notable early study in the journal Nature suggested that in 2005, Wikipedia scientific articles came close to the level of accuracy in Encyclopædia Britannica and had a similar rate of "serious errors".[5] This study was disputed by Encyclopædia Britannica.[6]

In areas where I actually have expertise, Wikipedia does quite well. They're not perfect, and you have to watch out for articles that are in the midst of 'editing wars', but if you want to know about RuBisCO or Gamma-ray bursts, Wikipedia does a bangup job.

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    Bootstrapping answer. Wikipedia is reliable because Wikipedia says it's reliable, and... – Sklivvz Apr 10 '11 at 19:26
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    It's funny because if you just blatantly copied sections (and their references) from the article, it would have been fine here. – Nick T Apr 10 '11 at 19:34
  • No, it's funny, because it's funny. It also happens to supply a link to relevent information that no one else went to the bother to post. Perhaps the later answer involving the nature study appeared because of this post. That study is after all mentioned in my linked Wikipedia article. – user951 Apr 10 '11 at 19:51
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    My original question has that link. – picakhu Apr 10 '11 at 20:18
  • So it does. Sorry I missed it. – user951 Apr 10 '11 at 23:10

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