Is Wikipedia a trustworthy source?

If you’ve searched for information online, then you’ve surely come across Wikipedia.  It’s user generated and regulated — meaning anyone can edit the information.  And information can be found on a broad range of topics from diseases to celebrities to televisions.  Pretty much anything.

But is it trustworthy?  That’s where the debate starts.  And the debate is important.  For example, New Scientist recently reported that 50 percent of medical doctors are using Wikipedia for information.  Its trustworthiness goes beyond whether an article we’re writing is accurate.  It affects our lives.

The theory on Wikipedia that I employ and teach my students to employ is that it’s a good starting point, but any information found on the site needs to be confirmed by a more solid source.  That’s what I hope is happening with doctor’s using Wikipedia to look up information on certain prescription drugs or conditions.

In the end, the Wikipedia debate comes down to whether the information is reliable.  Because it is user generated information it is both reliable and unreliable.  My very tech-savvy husband falls more to the reliable side of the debate.  His argument is that with so many people editing it, the information is bound to be accurate.  Someone who knows better isn’t going to let a mistake go uncorrected.  The New Scientist article even points out that no factual mistakes were found.  That’s a decent track record.  And we can surely all agree that multiple heads are better than one for catching mistakes.

However, I fall more on the unreliable side of the debate, especially for article writing.  I feel as a journalist that I have a responsibility to my readers to dig deeper than the general, user-generated information on Wikipedia.  Does that mean I never visit the site?  No.  Does that mean that I may start with the site to get an idea for what kind of sources and information to look for?  Sometimes, especially if it’s a new article topic I’m not familiar with.

All that said, I also need to point out that Wikipedia articles include references for where the information is coming from.  That means the information has to have some credibility to it.  I would say, though, instead of using the Wikipedia page as a source to go to the actual sources quoted.  First, you can confirm what is written on Wikipedia is true.  And second, you’ve just found a primary source.

Primary sources are those who were/are directly involved in the event or topic being covered.  Secondary sources are people outside of the event/topic reporting on it.  For example, I originally found the New Scientist article through another Web site.  But, to use it as a source and credit it, I went back to the actual article.  I even checked the information the article references for accuracy.  I’ve long been a fan of the Pew Internet & American Life project for data, so I made sure what New Scientist reported was actually what Pew found.  I didn’t want to quote a secondary source even in my blog.

Wikipedia seems, to me, to fall into that secondary source category.  Sure, some of those editing the posts may be directly involved, but we don’t know that.  My biggest problem with Wikipedia is that very fact — we don’t know who is behind the information.  Since it’s such a large collaboration, knowing who specifically said what is impossible anyway.  How do you quote that?  At least going to the primary sources at the bottom of each Wikipedia page gives you a more primary source to reference.

At the end of the day, credibility is most important.  Wikipedia is credible to an extent.  But, it’s a secondary source that has no place being quoted or referenced in articles.  Too many other sources exist to draw information from if you’re willing to take the time to look for them.

How do you feel about Wikipedia?

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