Is Wikipedia a legitimate research source?
Wikipedia is a multilingual and easily-accessible website that contains a vast source of knowledge to which anybody can edit. For these reasons, Wikipedia has consistently been one of the top twenty most viewed websites on the Internet since 2007. As a popular source of information, questions of Wikipedia’s legitimacy as a research source are not anything new. A legitimate research source, as defined by the University of Georgia’s Libraries (UGA), is a source that "provides a thorough, well-reasoned theory, argument, discussion, etc. based on strong evidence". Since Wikipedia can be edited by anybody, teachers from a variety of different educational levels strongly discourage their students from using Wikipedia as a legitimate research source based on assumptions of unreliability. Despite the opposing stance from educational institutions worldwide, Wikipedia can be considered a legitimate research source because of its thoroughness and vast explanations on major topics; its ability to supply information with reliable sources according to their policy, and its vast number of bots and administrators that implement official Wikipedia policies and remove or prevent vandalism.
The first adjective that UGA’s definition for a legitimate research source uses is “thorough”, meaning that the source in question has been completed and expanded on to the best of its ability. According to Wikipedia’s own frequently reviewed article regarding their statistics titled “Wikipedia:Size of Wikipedia”, Wikipedia has over 6 million articles and averages over 600 words per article. Wikipedia also continues to grow extensively, with over 15,000 new articles every month as of January 2022. Since 2006, Wikipedia has been consistent in adding about 1 gigabyte of compressed text to its articles every year. Assuming that each word is about 5 characters and a space, totaling 6 characters, this means that Wikipedia has been adding over 100 million words to its articles per year. Featured articles, showcased as Wikipedia’s best works, amassed to about .09% of Wikipedia’s total articles (1 out of 1,060 articles are featured). These statistics show that not only does Wikipedia already have such a massive database to begin with, but it continues to grow at a tremendous rate every year. Even the lesser-known articles are supplied with enough information for a researcher to at least get a basic understanding of the topic at hand. Usually, these articles only contain as much information as is available in the world. Wikipedia’s ability to be so detailed and in-depth with their articles confirms the UGL’s requirement of thoroughness that is essential in a reliable source. A thorough article is essential as researchers need to be able to engage with the content that they are viewing. The more the detail, the more that a researcher can assess whether or not the article is credible or not.
With such a vast amount of easily accessible content, it is critical that Wikipedia hosts credible articles for researchers. If Wikipedia hosts articles that are not based on strong evidence or sources, then Wikipedia fails to meet the criteria of being a legitimate research source. Wikipedia does a straightforward job in making clear what sources are acceptable for their articles. Wikipedia has developed various community-driven policies that set boundaries and regulations on its platform in order to further the cause of creating a free encyclopedia. On Wikipedia’s policy for reliable sources titled “Wikipedia:Reliable sources”, Wikipedia only accepts independent, published, and notable sources from reputable authors or organizations. Independent sources are crucial because Wikipedia strives for a neutral point of view in their articles, preventing articles from taking a tone that may support one group or another (for example, the Israel-Palestine conflicts). Published sources are considered to be open for the public, and therefore able to be verified. Lastly, sources that are relevant and from established authors or organizations (for example, Albert Einstein or Sri Lanka Medical Association, respectively) are necessary so that researchers are able to not only learn knowledge that was based on strong evidence but also to fact-check any Wikipedia article using their own sources. The sources that are used in Wikipedia articles are presented in footnotes throughout the article and are neatly organized at the bottom of the article under a section titled “References”. Although Wikipedia has a tremendous policy in regards to what type of sources can be used to build up its content, many argue that since Wikipedia is user-generated content, anyone can disregard these rules and edit freely irrespective of the policies set in place.
Wikipedia was founded with the ground-breaking aim of being an encyclopedia where “anyone could go to this Web site and just by clicking a button start working on an article”. Since then, Wikipedia has exploded in popularity, hosting over 200 languages of user-generated Wikipedias. With the ability for anyone to edit, irrespective of expertise, many observers, including Sunday Morning news reporter Caitlin Johnson, claim that Wikipedia is not reliable because one can simply just "log on to Wikipedia here and… change it". In a 2006 article, American comedian Stephen Colbert stated that “you can edit your own entry to make yourself seem even smarter”. These statements recognizing the easiness of editing and changing articles are certainly true and good-faith statements. These statements are even backed up by Wikipedia’s founder Larry Sanger, who envisioned Wikipedia as a meeting mark for “get[ting] everyone in the world together to record what they know in one place…”. Larry Sanger intended to make Wikipedia so easy to edit. It’s the ability to host a wide variety of knowledge for the world, that can be changed with just a click of a button, that makes Wikipedia so remarkable. Therefore, the comments made by Johnson and Colbert attest to its mission.
Although the comments made by Johnson and Colbert seem straightforward and logical, their comments fail to account for Wikipedia’s rigid policies and systems that overlook the articles created by its contributors. Firstly, Wikipedia imposes a strict neutral point-of-view, or NPOV, policy. According to “Wikipedia:Neutral point of view”, Wikipedia makes it clear that contributors are prohibited to “promote one particular point of view from another”. Therefore, Colbert’s comment implying that one can create an article based on themselves and paint it in a positive light is misguiding. Certain articles that are met with contributors who repetitively violate the NPOV policy are protected. For articles that fit the criteria to be protected (articles that are vandalized frequently, controversial, highly-viewed, etc.), those certain articles are protected from editing by a certain category of users known as administrators. This imposed protection prevents regular contributors from editing the page, effectively protecting the neutrality of the article at hand. Secondly, programmed users, known as “bots”, are created on Wikipedia to revert edits made by other users that are detected as “vandalism”. One of these bots is named “ClueBot NG”, which are programmed to immediately remove automatically throughout the site. Thirdly, in the case of users who persistently insert false information into articles, users who have been appointed as administrators have the ability to block users for a temporary or permanent period. According to Wikipedia’s official policy regarding administrators, administrators are regular users who have been granted by the community a variety of tools to keep the English Wikipedia running smoothly. With Wikipedia’s community-created policies and tools to prevent mischievous editing, there is no question as to why Wikipedia remains a top and verifiable source on one of the world’s most popular search engines.
Wikipedia isn’t perfect. The website’s content is user-generated, therefore mistakes and inaccuracies aren’t unheard of. Despite the potential for major inaccuracies, Wikipedia has done a massively exceptional job at keeping its site almost fool-proof. If Wikipedia was full of inaccuracies, it wouldn’t be one of the most popular websites in our current internet world. Wikipedia fits the UGL’s definition of reliability because it displays thorough research based on strong references. These references are upheld by Wikipedia’s community-driven source credibility policies and articles are fact-checked by the plethora of users, including automated, reliable bots and community-elected administrators. In order to disapprove of the notion that Wikipedia is “unreliable”, public speakers should do more research into Wikipedia and its checks and balances before making unfounded comments. This way, people are not misled into automatically believing that Wikipedia is an unreliable source. The hard work of thousands of volunteers should not go to waste, so unfounded comments that tarnish Wikipedia’s reputation should immediately be stopped and disapproved. Wikipedia continues to be a model for human knowledge and exceeds its critics through its persistence in capturing reliable, well-supported information for the world to see in just a Google search.
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