Wikipedia: Angel or Demon? Observation on a Condemned Resource

Halos or horns? The lines in the Inquisition over almighty Wikipedia’s place in academic research could not be more clearly drawn. Purists hold that a wiki-based information database, updatable by anyone with Internet access, is not worth the bandwidth on which it is published. Apologists argue that the ever-updating nature of instantaneous information retrieval is an integral part of the ongoing Information Revolution. This information disciple, however, seeks an academically agnostic path.

It is true that the risk of finding misinformation on Wikipedia is greater than on a peer-reviewed website. Wikipedia browsers in search of accurate, well-cited information face many obstacles: duplicate articles contributed by different authors; submissions that may be biased and poorly written or researched; and inappropriate or missing citations. Further complicating the database’s accuracy are the efforts of pranksters and spammers who deliberately contribute misinformation (Murley, 2008).

Wikipedia’s administrators, however, have set stringent guidelines for article submission and editing. Editors are also quick to correct errors and/or remove content that is not ensured to be entirely credible, even going as far as to criticize librarians for including their respective repository names, out of concern that the mention could be an unfair advertisement for that information professional’s institution (Zentall & Cloutier, 2008).

It is not necessary to avoid Wikipedia as though it were some sort of heretic in the midst of a digital age of innocence. It has been proposed that the academic community should engage, rather than ignore, Wikipedia. By fact-checking articles and contributing to the database, academics help Wikipedia achieve its goal of being a credible, well-organized and easily retrievable resource for students, scholars and general populations. Ideally, the database’s web pages would be as rigorously vetted as any peer-reviewed online resource. Other beneficial aspects of actions such as these include a higher awareness of the role of the library in today’s modern age, along with the increased knowledge of specialized collections held within individual libraries. This concept is not outside the realm of possibility given that today’s libraries often equipped with modern technologies capable of extended web interaction (Pressley & McCallum, 2008).

Banning Wikipedia from academia is unnecessary; using Wikipedia as the final word on any topic is irresponsible. Elements such as spelling, a possible date, a collection of keywords for further research, an overall timeline of events, associated participants or images may be retrieved with relative ease and confidence. But any items found within the wiki’s confines should be checked against other accredited databases and must not be used on works cited/consulted pages. Wikipedia, when used appropriately, can point a researcher to other, more credible resources than s/he might have found without consulting Wikipedia. Wikipedia, like any mass information storage element, must be used critically and responsibly. This tree of knowledge has its share of bad apples.

Works Cited

  • Murley, D. 2008. In Defense of Wikipedia. Law Library Journal, 100(3), 593-9.
  • Pressley, L., & McCallum, C. 2008. Putting the Library in Wikipedia. Online (Weston, Conn.),  32(5), 39-42.
  • Zentall, L., & Cloutier, C. 2008. The Calisphere Wikipedia Project: Lessons Learned. CSLA Journal, 32(1), 27-9.
  • A. D. Beman-Cavallaro, MLS, is Assistant Stacks Supervisor at the University of South Florida Tampa Library.