Wikipedia is a free online encyclopaedia (a reference work of summaries of knowledge either from all branches or from a particular field or discipline) created and maintained by a community of volunteers. Wikipedia is a portmanteau work formed from the Hawaiian word wiki meaning to hurry, or fast or quick and encyclopaedia - so it means "fast encyclopaedia". Wikipedia is one of the most popular websites in the world - the 13th most popular site in the world at the time of writing this. Wikipedia get used a lot by learners for their assignments and essays, but most teachers and tutors (and librarians) recommend that Wikipedia is used with extreme caution.
Wikipedia has many good points - it wouldn't be so popular if it didn't. One of the aims of Wikipedia was to make information more freely and widely available and, in that regard, it has been a great success. It's always up-to-date - pages can be created and updated as things happen, which is very useful if you're interested in current affairs, sport, pop culture or any other topic where things can change rapidly. It has great breadth and depth of coverage and it's all openly licenced - you can use images and text from Wikipedia without needing to ask for permission. It compares well in studies of accuracy with more traditional reference sources, such as Encyclopaedia Britannica
Wikipedia is an Internet site that anyone, literally anyone can edit. Yes, it has a huge and enthusiastic volunteer user base, but they're mostly amateurs. There's nothing stopping anyone from editing pages on quarks (subatomic particles), Cordyceps (a type of fungus) or the Nabataeans (an ancient Arab people), even if they know absolutely nothing about those subjects. Yes, errors usually get picked up, but there's no guarantee that when you access a page the information you're looking at is accurate. Wikipedia also lacks diversity - around 15-20% of Wikipedia editors are female and are not as active as their male counterparts. Wikipedia also has far better biographical coverage of notable men than of notable women. White editors predominate too, leading to accusations of racial bias in topic coverage. While there is great breadth and depth of coverage, a lot of depth is devoted to more trivial topics such as TV shows. A Wikipedia page for a typical Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode is likely to very long and very detailed. Compare the detail on the page for the Buffy episode Once More With Feeling with the aforementioned page on the Cordyceps fungus
Wikipedia is a good and useful site, and the Internet is a better place for its existence, but it should not be used for college work or assignments. There's simply no guarantee that the information on the page that you're looking at is accurate. Errors usually get corrected, but it might take some time to get it done, but that may take hours, days, months, or even years.
In 2008 one user, a 17-year-old American student, made an edit to the Wikipedia entry for the coati, a small South American mammal, stating that the coati is sometimes known as the “Brazilian aardvark”. Before the editor confessed to making it up, this "fact" had found its way on to hundreds of websites, into news articles and even a book published by the University of Chicago. This proved difficult to remove from Wikipedia because the claim was supported by hundreds of websites, some newspapers and even a book published by the University of Chicago! This is called circular referencing - where source A cites a "fact" from source B, but source B cites the same "fact" from source A - you can't independently verify this "fact", because the only sources cite each other as the source of the "fact"
In 2009, an Irish student added a made-up quote to the Wikipedia entry for the French composer Maurice Jarre hours after Jarre's death. It was a nice quote, so it was immediately picked up by websites and newspapers. Despite the fact that the quote was identified as fake and deleted by other Wikipedia editors, it still remained part of many of Jarre's website and newspaper obituary notices until the student confessed to faking the quote. The quote was part of the Internet Movie Database's news story (cached version) about Jarre's death for over 10 years and is still attributed to Jarre on one quotation site (last checked, May 2023)
"I am 100 percent convinced that if I hadn't come forward, that quote would have gone down in history as something Maurice Jarre said, instead of something I made up," the student told The Guardian newspaper.
These were experienced researchers and journalists who were caught out by Wikipedia. If it can happen to them, then it can happen to you too!
Bearing in mind that Wikipedia is not a reliable source of information, it can still be useful to you as a research tool, but only if you follow these do's and don'ts.
The success of Wikipedia has spawned a host of imitators that use the same software platform, format and volunteer model. Some do share Wikipedia's commitment to disseminating knowledge but are very specialist in nature. Others are parodies or take an extremely biased point of view. In the main, other wikis should be avoided. If you do find yourself looking at another wiki, find out what you can about that wiki and exercise extreme caution.
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A white nosed coati by Benjamin Keen (own work) Licenced by a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence
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