Twenty years after its founding, online encyclopedia Wikipedia hosts more than 20% of the global population on its site each month. Despite massive traffic to the more than 55 million pages, Wikipedia and the reliability of its entries have been under fire since its first article was posted two decades ago.
On this anniversary, University of Georgia professors discuss the credibility of the contentious, crowd-sourced information hub.
Information credibility in the digital age
Wikipedia’s reliability questions are so well-known that they have their own Wikipedia page titled “Reliability of Wikipedia.” The entry features eight subheadings and 269 citations to primary sources. It mentions scientific studies, public opinion research and internal corporate data that spans the encyclopedia’s two-decade history.
“If you were my age and remember being in school when Wikipedia started, it was kind of a no-no,” said Associate Professor of Accounting Margaret Christ. “You weren’t supposed to go to Wikipedia because it wasn’t as well monitored as it is now. You could go in and make an edit that was erroneous and it might not get fixed. That doesn’t happen now.”
A 2005 study in British scientific journal Nature found Wikipedia to be comparable in accuracy of science articles to its widely-trusted competitor, Encyclopedia Britannica, which is maintained by an editorial staff and external advisors.
Regardless, Wikipedia’s initial bad reputation has been hard to shake, and recent outcries against fake news have only turned up the heat. Assistant Professor of Classics Jordan Pickett, however, thinks it’s time some of the burden of responsibility is shifted from sources to consumers.
“A critical eye is required for everything we read, whether that's a newspaper or Twitter or a medieval manuscript or publications from an archaeological site. We alone are responsible for choosing what to trust, and for sharpening our skills as critical readers,” Pickett said in an email to The Red & Black.
Sharpening critical information consumption skills in students is one of the primary goals of R1 research institutions like UGA. Shelley Hooks, associate vice president of the Office of the Vice President of Research appreciates the accessibility of Wikipedia, but said she expects her students to dig deeper in their own research endeavors.
“I think it’s a fine place to start, but at an institution of higher learning and particularly a R1 research institution, I think we would expect our students to really be going to primary sources of information, not these predigested sources,” Hooks said.
Only as reliable as who contributes
Wikipedia’s nature as an “open-collaborative online encyclopedia” is both the reason for its perceived inaccuracy and the reason for its success. With decades of professional research under her belt, Hooks sees both sides.
“There are certainly concerns with the open-source nature of something like Wikipedia where anyone can contribute, but there are also, I think, legitimate concerns about the old model,” Hooks said. “I think the danger in the way that things were done when I was a student is that there was definitely a lot of opportunity for bias because there was such a small community of people controlling what was in an encyclopedia.”
Even without the barriers of entry faced by previous generations, this bias in who writes and edits encyclopedia entries persists.
“Coverage of topics is biased towards the people who are making edits. Anyone can do it, but not everybody does it,” Christ said.
The gender bias in Wikipedia is well-documented on its own Wikipedia page. Internal surveys revealed a dramatic gap between the number of male editors versus those who responded as female or nonbinary, with 90% of respondents reporting their gender as male.
Despite its faults, Christ still considers herself a “fan” of Wikipedia, but for her, it's a family thing. Christ’s mother Kathleen de la Peña McCook is a Wikipedia editor. McCook is a professor of library science at the University of South Florida where she teaches a class about Wikipedia.
Though his classes vary in subject matter, Pickett has used Wikipedia entries to introduce students to complex topics, though not without first verifying the credibility of the citations.
“I assign Wikipedia articles rarely and very carefully — I always jump straight to the bibliography and references to look for material I find trustworthy before I'd consider assigning to students,” Pickett said.
Pickett’s method is undisputed by Hooks and Christ. They agreed that the best way to consume information on Wikipedia is to rely on the references.
“Follow the breadcrumbs. Follow the citations to get to the real information,” Christ said. “I think you just need to be intellectually curious about what you read and not just take everything as fact just because you’ve read it.”