Legitimizing Wikipedia

“It can be edited by anyone.” So goes the constant justification put forth by many faculty here at Andover when a student asks whether they are allowed to use Wikipedia as a major source of information for their paper or project. As the English language version of the online encyclopedia just recently added its one-millionth article, it would be out of order not to take a second look at our school’s policy. Anyone who asks a librarian or many other faculty members here why Wikipedia cannot be used as a source will get treated to the same answer – it can be edited by anyone. However, I would argue that this remains one of the encyclopedia’s greatest assets. Since the website receives over 2,000 page views per second, it has the unique advantage of having a user group large enough to look at and review many of its articles. This translates into the ability for people to edit pages that are otherwise vandalized or just plain wrong. Nor is it that hard to find examples of Andover students themselves doing edits. I for one have cleaned up certain articles when I was aware of a slight error, and I have constantly heard of others creating or editing articles of their own. If one wishes to play a numbers game, consider that with only a few people editing the site from each school and institution around the country, the editing group translates into a staggering amount of people. Since curriculums also tend to follow each other, it is a relatively safe bet that the history page you accessed has in fact been searched by another few hundred if not thousand fellow students. In addition, a large user base has the huge advantage of adding depth to the articles. Instead of being edited for brevity like other publications, Wikipedia articles have the tendency to accumulate large amounts of information from successive additions, especially in relation to controversial topics. For example, the articles concerning Tony Blair and Ariel Sharon are twenty-three and eleven pages respectively, and that does not even concern their actions in detail, which have their own pages. Additionally, a look at the PA pages on both Wikipedia and Britannica yields similar results. Whereas on Britannica the school is treated to a paltry 126 words and only offered a brief history, the Wikipedia article is six pages long and contains information on everything from sports to Gelb Science building. This is a trend repeated throughout the website as well, and is not confined to merely a few select articles. Students in the history department in particular should be encouraged to use the tool as a source to check dates and information. The gross amount of data covers more than a student would arguably find in many of the library’s encyclopedias combined, and the depth easily rivals specific encyclopedia’s. Articles on topics pertaining to the Middle East, Economics, or China’s “Peaceful Rise” are all available, and all of which could prove to be of great aid to students. Biology, Physics, and Chemistry articles can also provide insight into topics. A species index with exacting details is available for Biology students. Various areas of study for Physics and Astronomy are open. Updates on workings at CERN, NASA, or other laboratories and locations of interest are eventually compiled and displayed for all, usually in language comprehensible to readers. Chemistry students can gain benefits from the availability of identification of elements and molecules and topics on “Green Chemistry.” All these of course, according to the school’s policy, would not be admissible unless verified using an outside source. A recent Nature magazine study added even more credibility to the web encyclopedia when compared to Encyclopedia Britannica, which Andover teachers consider a viable resource. In the study, Wikipedia averaged four errors per page on mainly scientific articles, while Britannica was only slightly better, with three errors. The study only focused on scientific pages as well, not addressing articles other than those in which Wikipedia contains much more information – such as on current events affecting the world, or business information. High profile cases of people falsely editing Wikipedia articles are more exception than rule, and are usually dealt with quickly by the website. The site’s moderators do an excellent job of preventing malicious edits and keeping article contents factual. Besides vandalism controls, the website also has built a trusted page system, in which articles considered to be of superb quality can be placed. Because of this, people are more and more beginning to trust the encyclopedia and consider it on par with other reference publications. Regardless, it is never hard to validate a Wikipedia article independently. Most articles provide a list of sources used, and some even a large list of books concerning the topic. Anyone doubting an article could easily check to verify the information, and indeed, the listing helps ensure that no information is taken arbitrarily and is in fact truthful. Among students, the encyclopedia continues to gain recognition for making research easy and quick. Because of this, denying students the ability to use it as a proper tool is ineffective – it means people will, instead of looking into actual sources, use Wikipedia and then proceed to use the sources cited on an article page to meet “respectable publication” requirements. This begs the question – why not let students use the website and simply cite it instead? It would also help give teachers a better understanding of where the information came from and assist in issues such as checking for plagiarism or authenticity. It is easily possible to check when edits have been made to an article through the use of the discussion and history pages attached to every article. As well, a teacher has the full ability to check the version used by a student to further gain an insight into what they read. Wikipedia itself is only one of a massive online database however. Run by the Wikimedia foundation, there are seven other rapidly growing portions of the group – all of which work together. A dictionary, quote library, open content book compendium (similar to Project Gutenberg), news source, library source book, multimedia and sound depository, and a species directory all exist on the organization’s network. And all of these help to compliment one another. Students needing a quote from a famous historian or leader can find what they need; those needing obscure texts or digital versions of famous ones are in luck, as are biology students looking to learn more about a prospective project. While Wikipedia is by far the most well known of the various projects, they all stem from one idea – that knowledge should be available to everyone. They exemplify one of the greatest aspects of the internet and what it has become. It has grown into a large, global project with advantages that for-profit companies like Encyclopedia Britannica and Encarta can only dream of. It would be a shame for Andover to deny students the right to use Wikipedia and other sources. Its high time Andover acknowledges Wikipedia.