Wikipedia is, according to satirist Stephen Colbert, “the encyclopedia where you can be an authority even if you don’t know what the h*** you’re talking about.”
Google any topic and odds are the top search result is Wikipedia.
Since the site started in 2001, Wikipedia.org has become the largest encyclopedia with 19 million articles in 282 languages. Its success can be attributed to the fact that most of its articles can be edited by anyone and focuses on comprehensiveness while lacking the credibility of traditional encyclopedias like Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Wikipedia’s “anyone can edit” philosophy is widely criticized by professors, writers and researchers. Critics feel content generated by non-experts does not rise to the level of expert-reviewed material.
Students are divided about the usefulness of Wikipedia. A survey of 71 students found that 55 percent of respondents believe Wikipedia is not reliable. Twenty respondents reported using it for researching topics and 51 students for casual browsing.
“Could it use some work? Yes, but most of the time I do find it generally reliable,” said senior Jeremiah Johnson.
Some high school teachers see value in Wikipedia. English teacher, Anne Marie Brewster, used to consider Wikipedia unreliable but now uses it regularly.
“I did not think it was very reliable when it came out. I was very suspicious of it, but now because I do use it, my opinion has improved. I still think you have to be wary when you use it, but I definitely use it,” Brewster said.
English teacher, Deborah Bohlmann, also uses Wikipedia as a resource.
“It’s a really easy place to go and get images, dates and little facts like that. Some teachers I know just don’t let students use it at all in any shape or form, but I just consider it to be so accessible. I do really think it’s a fine first step. If you don’t know anything about your topic, go ahead and look at Wikipedia so you get an idea,” Bohlmann said.
Colleges and universities have taken a hardline stance of banning Wikipedia from the classroom. A student using Wikipedia as a source can usually expect a failing grade.
“They have access to these databases that are incredibly comprehensive and Wikipedia cannot possibly hope to approximate what you can gather from those databases,” said Bohlmann.
Most changes to Wikipedia are reviewed by editors. Tools used to counter misinformation include article watchlists, word filters and a monitored feed of recently created pages. Forty-two percent of damage to articles is repaired almost immediately according to a study by the University of Minnesota.
However it isn’t uncommon for some edits to slip through the cracks and remain undetected. “The problem is it’s not always obvious,” said Brewster.
“As long as it’s not something outlandish, there’d be no reason for them to know that something was a little bit off.”