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The Great Wikipedia Debate
Wikipedia, "The Free Encyclopedia", has only been around for a few years (it was first launched in January 2001), but it rapidly grew in popularity and in size – to date, it features about 7.8 million articles in 253 different languages – and is now many people's first port of call on the internet for information about virtually any topic. The name "Wikipedia" is a portmanteau of the word "wiki", which refers to a collectively edited website, and "encyclopedia".
What made Wikipedia so quick to expand was the factor which makes the online encyclopaedia unique: literally anyone with an internet connection can add and edit articles on the site. Joining the Wikipedia site is encouraged, but a login isn't necessary to edit pages.
The open nature of Wikipedia has been both a blessing and a curse for the founders of the site. While Wikipedia has received many accolades and awards for its efforts in the collection and dissemination of information, it has also been criticised frequently for alleged bias, susceptibility to vandalism, systemic bias, inconsistency and inaccuracy, and for favouring consensus over credentials in its editing process.
So just how far should you trust the Wiki? Many universities have banned students from citing Wikipedia in studies, and some have even blocked access to the site. The encyclopaedia is certainly perceived as lacking in authority. The problem with this is that teachers, academics and other experts are disinclined to use the encyclopaedia, and hence, to participate in its maintenance, which means that there is a sad lack of expert contribution.
Larry Sanger, who played a key role in the launch of Wikipedia, but left the team in 2002, has criticised the Wikipedia community for being wilfully anti-elitist and anti-intellectualist; what is more, he claimed in
Studies have been done which found that Wikipedia was almost as accurate as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and that vandalism is usually removed within a couple of hours, and sometimes within a minute or two of its publication. But Wikipedia itself admits that it should not be used as an infallible source. "Nerd bias" only means that some articles are less well-developed than others, and doesn't make a difference to the accuracy of the information which is provided. ("Nerd centrismmight be a better choice of phrase.) Most entries cite references of one sort or another, and those which don't are flagged at the top of the article, so visitors to the site are able to read other sources.
It's clear that Wikipedia should not be considered the be-all and end-all, but any encyclopaedia is unfortunately subject to problems of inaccuracy, because of time and space constraints, and the inability to locate suitable experts. Its claim to be an encyclopaedia has been criticised, but in terms of its accuracy, it ranks alongside other encyclopaedias. Therefore the most obvious solution is to use Wikipedia as a starting point for research, but not to rely on its accuracy. Real books, journals and other publications will always have their value, and command the most authority.
By Natalie Catchpole