So in elementary school, I was told not to use Wikipedia too much because you can't trust what they write. So then for all the projects, I used the Canadian Encyclopedia, but then now, I really would like to know why not to use Wikipedia. The only answer I know of is that anyone can write anything, but doesn't it have to go through a review under someone that actually is part of the Wikipedia community? What I think, is that Wikipedia takes a lot of information from other websites, then puts it all together, which is why normally, they have a big bibliography. I was wondering- Is Wikipedia really trustworthy?

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    If I were you, I'd attribute things Wikipedia backs up with a citation to their cited source rather than to Wikipedia. If you can verify that source attributes the claim in turn to some other source, you can go deeper. – J.G. Dec 25 '17 at 10:35
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    @J.G. Definitely this, Wikipedia may not work as a source, but it can be very useful for finding sources. – Herohtar Dec 25 '17 at 23:06
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    For scientific information any encyclopedia is frowned upon. A source in science is a peer-reviewed research paper that's published in a journal. Except for facts like "the number of wikipedia users in December 2017" would best be sourced on wikipedia data itself, of course. But for starting, finding overview and sources wiki is best. Surely no other encyclopedia comes close in terms of accuracy, update frequency and number of reviews. – Džuris Dec 26 '17 at 9:52
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    Just to clarify: "doesn't it have to go through a review under someone that actually is part of the Wikipedia community?" Generally speaking: no. Only those changes made to protected pages and/or by unregistered or new users are reviewed. I don't know jack about platypuses, but being a long-standing user I could edit the Platypus article to say that its venom can kill humans (it cannot) and nobody would notice for several days, probably weeks. – walen Dec 28 '17 at 8:20
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about reliability and biases has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Dec 28 '17 at 14:38

17 Answers 17

up vote 82 down vote accepted

Wikipedia is a crowd-sourced site where anybody can contribute, just like this one. Wikipedia strives for verifiability and neutrality and has an active user community, but that doesn't mean that things can't get past it. It doesn't mean information there can't be wrong. Some pages are full of detailed, reliable information; some are not. So, in evaluating the reliability of what you read on any given page there -- or anywhere else! -- you need to ask yourself how they know what they say.

Do they cite sources? Good Wikipedia pages do. Do they not cite sources but make a logical argument? (Not so common on Wikipedia, but common elsewhere on the Internet, including Stack Exchange.) Do they present evidence?

Since you asked about Wikipedia I'll focus on sources. For a first approximation, ask yourself if the sources cited are generally considered to be credible. If they cite peer-reviewed, publicly-available research, that's pretty good. If they cite the National Enquirer (a tabloid full of sensationalist fiction masquerading as news), be very suspicious. If the facts you're checking are particularly important, central to your thesis for example, then you might need to actually go look up some of those sources to confirm that the Wikipedia page accurately represents them. If the facts are less important or tangential, or your assignment doesn't call for this degree of rigor, then establishing that Wikipedia's sources are credible might suffice without looking them up.

I wrote more about evaluating sources in this answer, drawing in part from this article from UC Berkeley.

For Wikipedia in particular, you can also check the "talk" page associated with the topic you're looking at. The "talk" pages can sometimes tell you if any content is disputed or of questionable quality. If the "talk" page is empty, though, don't assume that means everything's fine -- it might mean that no experts have looked at the topic yet.

It's impossible to say, globally, "Wikipedia is trustworthy" or "Wikipedia is not trustworthy". Unlike an edited, curated encyclopedia, it contains material at a range of quality levels. I find Wikipedia to be a good starting point in research; sometimes I find everything I need there (including supporting sources), and sometimes I don't. Don't rule it out, but do be prepared to go beyond it.

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    One specific area where most Wikipedia articles are very good is technical computer stuff. For example, the article on the IEEE 754 double precision floating point format is very good. It's much easier to trust a wiki article when there isn't room for opinion / interpretation, like many math / science / computing articles. – Peter Cordes Dec 25 '17 at 18:54
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    In my opinion, the protection level, controversy sections, quality notes, revision history, talk/discussion pages, and so on make it more valuable than many individual sources, even though it's not especially useful or appropriate as a citation in an essay or paper. It's certainly better-curated than the textbooks we used while our teachers and professors stressed the distinction. – John P Dec 25 '17 at 20:16
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    +1 for "check the talk page". Not only is this vital for detecting bias in any politically contentious article (a group that includes, for example, almost every history article), but you will find there comments touching on important debates within the field -- which can include facts that can't go in the main article for lack of a "reliable source". – evilsoup Dec 27 '17 at 15:02
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    Wikipedia is simply not a source at all, good or bad. They are not the source of any information, just a summarizer of information. You don't cite the summery, you cite the original source. In that way it is distinct from most written encyclopedias, which can be cited. – Jonathon Dec 27 '17 at 16:48
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    @ruakh A core principle of wikipedia is NPOV so for any issue on which there is a disagreement, there is no truth. There is just information from different sources. What is accurate for one is manipulative for someone else. Editors care more about objectivity than about truth. Articles don't try to provide answers on controversial questions, but just different view points. – martinkunev Dec 30 '17 at 14:42

Things changed. Several reviews on the reliability of Wikipedia concluded it is about as accurate as more standard encyclopaedias, while having more content. I too have heard that Wikipedia should not be used at all when I was in school, but nowadays, at least at the universities I have some acquaintances in, professors do not hesitate to point to Wikipedia when they consider an article is pertinent and of quality. Thus, fears about the collaborative nature of Wikipedia being a major source of unreliability now are seemingly fading away: on the contrary, it leads to more content, with an approximately equal degree of accuracy as others encyclopaedias.

That said, Wikipedia, as well as other encyclopaedias, should never be used as references. This is because of the intrinsic nature of an encyclopaedia, which produces inherent limitations.

An encyclopaedia is meant as a compilation of the current knowledge. How is it done? By using reliable sources of information. As such, an encyclopaedia never produces new information, it only summarizes what was already done by others. In addition, to increase reliability and ensure notability of inclusion, only secondary sources (eg, journalists articles) can be used, rarely primary sources (the original source: a book, an interview, a talk, etc). An encyclopaedia is itself a tertiary source (so you can see we are getting further and further from the original information...).

This leads us to solve a common misconception, and the probable reason why encyclopaedia are frowned upon as sources for any serious work: they can only ensure verifiability, not the truth.

Indeed, since encyclopaedias can only compile knowledge, never create it, they are often limited to the current common knowledge, and not the state of the art. In addition, the usage of secondary sources might (heavily) bias the content included: a notable falsity cited by lots of reliable journals will be included whereas a truth only published in a book will not be notable enough to be included. Both of these inherent flaws are most apparent in fast moving information domains, such as articles on political events or figures, as well as contemporary history.

To take a somewhat extreme illustration, a poll on the french Wikipedia asked "whether, if Wikipedia existed a few centuries ago, it would state that the Sun revolved around the Earth". The majority (84%) answered yes.

In the end, Wikipedia, as well as any other encyclopaedia, can be a great first low-ceiling entry to a new knowledge you want to get, but it can only be seen as a gate to dive deeper into the included references, as well as the non-included references that you can find by your own means, which is particularly important if you are looking for the state-of-the-art (instead of only the current common knowledge).

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    @iiRosie1 Comparison is not enough, particularly if you are looking for the truth, or at least the latest knowledge on a subject. The only thing one can do is to learn more about the domain, so that one can derive a logical structure in mind that will guide oneself into evaluating whether an information seems realistic or not. But this takes (a lot!) of time, so an imperfect way to approach this might be to just look at multiple reliable sources to see if they converge, which can work well if the field is mature enough. However for debates and controversies, this will not work. – gaborous Dec 25 '17 at 20:30
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    @iiRosie1 Keep in mind that for some questions, there are no answers (yet). If you stumble on such a question that you cannot confidently find an answer to, don't feel ashamed to just say that you don't know (if you need to make a report, you can detail what you searched and what you found, and explain why you evaluated what you found did not answer the question at hand). This happens all the time in research, and it's way better than propagating falsities. Acknowledging uncertainty can be salvaging. – gaborous Dec 25 '17 at 20:34
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    @iiRosie1 Even the Canadian Encyclopedia has inaccuracies, small and big. Of course it is reviewed so you can be confident that most info there is accurate (at least up to today, it might be totally false in a few years depending on the subject). Just don't try to put too much emphasis on what is valid or not, or what is true or not. What matters is the methodology: how you searched for your information, where you found it, and how you stitch it with the rest to make the big picture into a coherent knowledge about the subject/question at hand. – gaborous Dec 25 '17 at 20:37
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    In research, as you become an expert of your subject, one often comes to the realization that almost everyone else don't know much about what they are talking about, and in particular in what you are studying. Inaccuracies are much more common than we think, but that's ok, we cannot know everything accurately, as our brains can only represent a fraction of the reality. If you have a good methodology, and you digged your subject enough to extract a reasonably logical structure with a good enough quantity of reliable references, you're better off than most. – gaborous Dec 25 '17 at 20:41
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    In a geocentric reference system, the Sun revolves around the Earth: hard to blame Earthlings for that initial conception. Nowadays, when we define "revolving around", we like to mean it independently from a reference system, and base it on gravitational forces, so the smallest mass is the revolving one. I can't imagine what would have been the debate if both were of equal mass (if we were on a supersized planet with a minisize sun). – Cœur Dec 28 '17 at 8:08

I like to say that broadly speaking, Wikipedia is mostly trustworthy when statements are cited, but it's never a source.

There are several parts to this.

Wikipedia is broadly and mostly trustworthy -- Most of the time, especially in articles of broad interest, errors are caught and at least flagged, if perhaps not addressed, quickly. This is what the [citation needed] notice is about for claims that aren't obviously unreasonable. (Claims that are obviously unreasonable are likely to just be deleted outright. A claim that "US president candidate Hillary Clinton was born on the planet Jupiter" is more likely to be deleted outright than flagged as "citation needed", for example. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and all that.)

When statements are cited -- This is an important caveat. Yes, anyone can write anything on Wikipedia. Good edits come with clear in-line citations. A statement that properly cites its source can be judged based on the source. As Monica Cellio pointed out, not all sources are created equal, so you need to exercise due diligence here. Beware of circular source references where, if you follow the line of citations and sources, you end up back where you started. You can reduce the risk of this by checking the Wikipedia page's revision history to see when a specific claim was added or cited to a source, and compare that to the publication or edit history of the cited source. The Internet Archive's Wayback Machine can also be useful here.

But it's never a source -- This is something a lot of people get wrong. You should never cite Wikipedia in any authoritative manner. Wikipedia, just like any other encyclopedia, is a summarization, and very often a simplification. In fact, Wikipedia prohibits adding material that cannot be verified using external references (they refer to this as verifiability, not truth). If it matters, then go to the source or to a specialist publication, preferably a peer-reviewed one, and cite that one (or better yet, several).

With the above caveats, Wikipedia is generally a good way to get a general overview of a subject. It's a nice starting place to find out what more you might want to read. If a specific fact is important, you should always verify it against some unrelated work anyway whether you start out on Wikipedia or with a printed encyclopedia. (Real scientists verify the results of others all the time, especially with new results that don't match earlier models.) Do note that this places a larger burden on you than simply checking that the sources listed for the claim on Wikipedia support the claim; you want to independently confirm the claim, not just confirm that the claim can be supported by whatever someone said supports the claim.

Let's say you are writing a report on how airplanes can fly; you might go to Wikipedia, or your favorite search engine, and type "how airplanes fly" into the search box. If you do that on Wikipedia, you might end up on the page about airplanes, and from there you might follow the link to its page about aircraft wings, which in turn will tell you that aerodynamic forces are involved, from where you can follow the link to the page on aerodynamics which goes into some of the gory details, including links to separate pages on subjects such as incompressible flows and transonic flows, along with separate pages on different types of engines (air-breathing pure jet engines, propeller engines including piston and turboprop engines, rocket engines, ...). Those pages, if you take the time to read and understand them, will probably give you a pretty decent idea of the details of how airplanes are able to fly, to the point that you could probably write up a pretty good summary yourself of how it all fits together, which (unless you're well into the upper years of the school system) your teacher would likely be happy with. However, it would not be a good idea to try to design an actual aircraft with just those, as they just aren't detailed enough. (It's unlikely that you'd even be able to get a pilot's license to fly aircraft just by studying those. You'd likely miss out on some details that are important in such a context, and spend too much time on things that are relatively unimportant.)

Which brings me to what you wrote in a comment to one of the answers...

So is it a good website to use when doing research for a project?

Research is a somewhat loaded term. It can be used colloquially as in "learn more about something", but it can also be used in the scientific meaning of "gathering data" or "determining what model best fits the available data". Wikipedia is generally nice for the former, but it's absolutely useless for the latter. When you're doing a school project, it's a gradual change from the former to the latter as you move up the educational system; by the time you're in college or university, you'll be expected to be doing more of the latter than the former. That implies that you won't even be going to Wikipedia's sources, at least by way of Wikipedia; you'll be reading relevant scientific publications directly.

In summary, don't be afraid to refer to Wikipedia, but if it's important for what you're doing, always at the very least check the sources. Consider any statement that doesn't cite its sources to be at best dubious.

  • Wow, I just learned a lot there. – iiRosie1 Dec 25 '17 at 18:48
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    @iiRosie1 I'm glad you found the answer helpful. – Michael Kjörling Dec 25 '17 at 18:49
  • @Michael Kjorling. Actually, your example was not well chosen. Although the aerodynamics of flight is very well understood, it is a topic notorious for its crank literature. Probably less than 50% of the material on aerodynamics in Wikipedia is sound. – Philip Roe Jan 1 at 3:15
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    @PhilipRoe For the details, I agree; there's probably numerous (more or less significant) errors and omissions especially once you go into the details, and my remark at the end was meant to cover, in part, particularly the omissions part. For a general overview good enough for a school report not meant to be an in-depth study of the subject, not quite so much. One doesn't necessarily need to understand e.g. the differences between laminar and turbulent flows and how this relates to angle of attack to have a good enough idea of why an airfoil can generate lift, but to fly safely, it helps to. – Michael Kjörling Jan 1 at 9:54

The idea that anyone can edit Wikipedia is often put forward as a bad thing, but with Wikipedia it's part of the peer review process and this happens a lot faster than it does with printed encyclopedias.

It also depends how you use it - as Monica mentions, the trick is to treat every page as a piece of journalism, and use it as a starting summary for the references cited - as such, it's a valuable introduction to the concept of critical thinking.

At junior school level teachers are more interested in students' abilities to find the relevant information in accepted reference sources. At further and higher education levels, the idea of questioning any reference source becomes more significant. At that point, the reliability of established reference sources (Canadian, Britannica, etc.) will also be called into question. Several studies have been done comparing Wikipedia with established reference sources - a few are listed here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reliability_of_Wikipedia), though it's always worth considering the source.

Is it a good place to find information? Yes. Is it a definitive font of all wisdom? No. Will it contain the answers a school teacher wants from their students? Maybe, maybe not - but the text book or other recommended source will.

Wikipedia policy requires that editors cite sources to support their edits. However, there's no systematic process for checking that editors are accurately representing the sources they cite, or that the sources are reliable, or that they even exist.

It usually works pretty well when a page attracts attention from multiple editors who are willing to scrutinise and challenge one another. For instance, if I add something to George W. Bush's Wikipedia page that isn't true, it's very likely that somebody else who has good knowledge of W's life will notice and call me on it. At that point, if I can't produce an acceptable source to support my edit, that edit will be reverted, and if I keep trying to push the point I'll probably eventually get banned.

However, there are cases where the Wikipedia model doesn't work so well. A couple of examples:

(1) Wikipedia policy leans heavily on the notion of "reliable sources", which is inherently difficult to define - in some cases the same newspaper/etc. may be reliable on certain topics and unreliable on others.

As an example, a friend of mine edited the Wiki article on one of her favourite entertainers, adding a "fact" about him which she'd just made up. It was plausible and innocuous, but utterly fictional. She didn't include a citation for this "fact", but nobody challenged it at the time, because it wasn't the kind of page that attracts close scrutiny.

A couple of years later, two major newspapers wrote profiles of this guy. Both of them used information from the Wikipedia article including my friend's "fact" without mentioning that they'd taken it from Wikipedia, and apparently without checking it.

Both of these papers would generally be considered "reliable sources" by Wiki's standards - one is among the world's most prestigious newspapers - and the Wikipedia article now cites both of them as evidence for the "fact". If you google his name, my friend's fake "fact" now appears at the top of the search results.

(No, I'm not going to give more details; it's not harming anybody and it's a useful reminder that even newspapers of record get lazy with fact-checking sometimes.)

(2) Wikipedia editors vastly prefer online sources for reasons of convenience. A source that's not available online is much less likely to be checked, and this can be exploited. Back when I was editing Wikipedia I found one bad-faith editor who was making up cites to sources that simply didn't exist, because it was much easier for him to make things up than it was for other editors to go track down an off-line source available in only one location to check whether it really said what he claimed.

As others have suggested, it's generally a bad idea to cite Wikipedia directly, but it can be a very good place to start: read the Wikipedia article, check what sources it cites, and then go look up those sources... and check whether the Wikipedia article has represented them accurately.

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    Obligatory XKCD: xkcd.com/978 – Monica Cellio Dec 26 '17 at 13:42
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    What @MonicaCellio said. Also, even a cursory glance at the publication and edit dates, and looking at when the claim was originally added, would likely show that the claimed sources cannot have been references for the original claim. Hence the sources should probably be noted as "dubious". Of course, since you know about this, the obvious question becomes: What have you done to try to rectify the situation? IMO a major problem is when people know that information on Wikipedia is wrong, or wrongly cited, yet do absolutely nothing to call this out, thereby allowing errors to persist. – Michael Kjörling Dec 26 '17 at 15:34
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    @MichaelKjörling (1/2) At this point there are perhaps a dozen "reliable sources" crediting the claim to a journalist, let's call him John Smith. On a quick search, I was unable to find the article where Smith first repeated the claim from Wikipedia; even if I could, and wanted to, how would I prove that it was the first time he'd made that claim? At this stage it would take considerably more than a "cursory glance" to debunk it. – Geoffrey Brent Dec 26 '17 at 19:59
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    (2/2) as to what I've done about this particular issue... well, nothing. I'm no longer active on Wiki, but I put in years of unpaid labour writing material and defending articles against far more harmful and insidious vandalism by crooks and crackpots. It's not my moral obligation to fix every error I know about - if it was, I'd never have time for anything else - and that particular one is quite useful for showing me which outlets are sloppy in their attribution and fact-checking. – Geoffrey Brent Dec 26 '17 at 20:20

No.

Wikipedia is not a reliable source. Wikipedia can be edited by anyone at any time. This means that any information it contains at any particular time could be vandalism. Biographies of living persons are especially vulnerable to this issue. Some of the article information might not be accurately true, which is therefore considered to be wrong.

Wikipedia generally uses reliable secondary sources, which vet data from primary sources. If the information on another Wikipedia page (which you want to cite as the source) has a primary or secondary source, you should be able to cite that primary or secondary source and eliminate the middleman (or "middle-page" in this case).

Always be careful of what you read: it may not be consistently reliable.

Source: Wikipedia.

  • Very... Ironic... Wow. – iiRosie1 Dec 27 '17 at 22:29
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    Can we rely on this wikipedia article stating that wikipedia is unreliable? :) – martinkunev Dec 28 '17 at 0:22
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    @martinkunev It's like: That sentence is true --> <-- That sentence is fake – iiRosie1 Dec 28 '17 at 0:28
  • @martinkunev Look up the Cretan Liar paradox. – user207421 Dec 28 '17 at 8:57
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    @iiRosie1 There is no moderation review before it's publicly shown. Moderation can happen subsequently, so there's always a time window possible where people can see false information. – talonx Mar 5 at 8:12

If you're relying on Wikipedia as a source, then it's worth noting that the Wikipedia page on identifying reliable sources for use in Wikipedia articles states in no uncertain terms that Wikipedia articles (and Wikipedia mirrors) in themselves are not reliable sources for any purpose.

That's not as paradoxical as it sounds, because a Wikipedia article should countain references to sources, and it's those sources you should be able to rely on, not the article itself. However, if you dig a little deeper you'll find that wikipedia guidelines encourage the use of secondary sources and strongly discourage the use of primary sources, though in practice these guidelines aren't always followed. This policy was formulated for logical reasons, but depending on how you look at it you may think this makes Wikipedia more or less reliable.

  • So then it depends on how you're using Wikipedia for reliability? – iiRosie1 Dec 25 '17 at 15:10

It heavily depends on the topic.

If it's about mathematics, computer science, physics, then Wikipedia is very trustworthy.

If it's an article about politics, ideology, history, or any topic large masses of people hold as an important self-identification criteria, then don't touch it even with a very long stick, as the group which happens to have more activists, dominates the article by being able to post more citations proving their side, and reverting edits made by others. Even if all citations come from reputable sources (which cannot be always guaranteed), an article can be biased by, for example, by having an excessively long section dedicated to criticism in case of an article about a person or group, where such could have been summarized in a short paragraph.

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    As a mathematics and computer science double major in college I can state that their math articles are deplorable and almost always useless. Computer Science articles are better but there have been many that were definitely not written by someone who knows their stuff. Good for a quick overview of what something is but the details are very wrong quite often. – The Great Duck Dec 26 '17 at 7:22
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    I recall something like "Redering equation" article was wrong for about one year in Wikipedia. It basically screwed up all the students who learned from there. – Oleg Lobachev Dec 26 '17 at 13:15
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    Ouch... Now imagine what happens when there is a large group of people ideologically determined to make an article fit to their views. – vsz Dec 26 '17 at 15:03
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    I can say physics articles are general good, especially upto an intermediate level. I can't say I find any errors in any physics article but some advanced articles are badly constructed, i.e., they give immense details to a few less relevant concepts but miss out the important ones. Some are not verified as well, I put a few citation need tags myself. – C.Koca Dec 27 '17 at 11:32
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    But historical articles are definitely unreliable. In list of massacres in Cyprus, massacres perpetuated by Turks were sourced with Greek newspapers while massacres perpetuated by Greeks were sourced with UN resoulutions. I tried to challenge this and had an early victory but then a large group of people rallied. I had to ask for admin attention constantly and it was tiresome after some point so I left the page. I have a feeling that some governments have professional wiki editors to make sure its content serves their purpose. – C.Koca Dec 27 '17 at 11:36

Wikipedia is a great place to start your research, but not to complete it. All good Wikipedia pages include cited reputable sources, so the best advice is to use Wikipedia to identify primary sources, and then use those instead for your final paper.

In general, while Wikipedia's average reliability may be equal to a standard reference work, that reliability varies greatly by page. (It also varies over the course of time, which a stable reference typically does not.) A good rule of thumb is that the more popular and the less controversial a page is, the more reliable. Less popular pages are not reviewed or edited often, so wrong, biased or outdated info can persist there a long time. And more controversial pages can be subject to "edit wars," carefully constructed misinformation, and or unintentionally slanted coverage.

A big part of the reason is that a Wikipedia page is constantly changing, so the way to effectively cite it isn't obvious; but Wikipedia is a much deeper system than it appears.

Wikipedia articles include an edit history, which is a clear tracking of every change made to a page. A proper citation include what date the material was accessed and therefore which version it refers to. Also, the "talk" page allows for any discussion about choices made, so you can follow the discussion which lead to some specific solutions.

  • This is a very good point and I wish I had brought it up. However, I will add that wikipedia does keep edit history so a proper citation will make clear what date the material was accessed and therefore which version to refer to. – The Great Duck Dec 26 '17 at 7:20
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    You can, actually. There is a permalink option to exactly the revision you are viewing in Wikipedia engine. "Wikipedia is not a scientific source" has nothing to do with this. It's rather: "no one can vouch that an arbitrary snapshot of a random Wikipedia article is true". – Oleg Lobachev Dec 26 '17 at 13:14
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    That is fairly reductive. Wikipedia allows a clear tracking of every change made to a page, so it is easy to see how it was made. Also, the "talk" page allows for any discussion about choices made, so you can follow the discussion which lead to some specific solutions. It is a much deeper system than it looks like. – FraEnrico Dec 26 '17 at 13:17
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    I never knew any of this. Thanks for educating me. – sirsnow Dec 26 '17 at 18:35
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    @sirsnow Rather than turn this into a comment I've edited this to include a lot of material from the comments by Typhon, Oleg Lobachev, and FraEnrico. Please feel free to further edit my attempt, of course. – Neil Fein Dec 29 '17 at 20:12

In a nutshell:

Wikipedia values citation and notability over accuracy and direct knowledge from the source.

Pick your favorite book, movie, etc. Let's say the main character is a man from Asia. If were to go on air and state that the main character is a female alien from Pluto then wikipedia would use that as a source and edit accordingly. Let that sink in.

I know it a prevalent issue because I posed the question no less then at least 10 times over the period of a few months in their editor help chat to see whether I was misunderstanding their policies (which appear to encourage such behavior). Several people would get irritated when I said we shouldnt use the news article. Their response was that it is a reputable institution and therefore refusing to yse the article makes them look bad. Of course, that is editors opinions but it still shows the general trend.

So definitely take wikipedia with a grain of salt. If some famous reputable scientist posts a quack paper and it gets used on wikipedia it will take months to edit it out. People literally have massive arguments over the title of a page or whether some wording is ambiguous.

Now consider an encyclopedia run by people knowledgeable in a particular subject and building just that one section and critically deciding what is and isnt true. That is the difference in quality.

Plus, wikipedia is built as a general overview for notability purposes, not science or mathematics. So do not expect to find formal proofs of notable theorems or demonstrations of scientific experiments. Expect to primarily find why the item is important and how it is relevant to the everyday person.

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    Hopefully in your example case there are other sources which can be cited that say that the main character is a male human from Asia. Otherwise your favorite book/movie/etc. might have issues beyond just its Wikipedia article... – Michael Kjörling Dec 25 '17 at 22:53
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    @MichaelKjörling The problem is that in the case of conflicting sources one does not yield to one backed up by the source material as that requires original research (practically a cardinal sin on Wikipedia). Instead one refers to the more notable paper and therefore it creates an environment where misinformation can propogate. Of course, people do discuss such issues as they are humans and not machine but the point is that people who are not authorities nor have any familiarity with a subject can write an article and that isnt good. – The Great Duck Dec 26 '17 at 0:20
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    @MichaelKjörling I dont recall what article it was, but thst example O gave as it was at least a year or so ago was to try to make a point that we were accepting sources that were blatantly false (and easily disproved by screenshots and quotes from the medium itself). I was shot down as "Wikipedia covers notable facts and therefore unless a more notable source arises that states otherwise, the policies state to use that source. Needless to say... it shouldn't be used for serious academia beyond a quick refresher or high school paper. – The Great Duck Dec 26 '17 at 0:23

Very late, but here's a couple of points:

  • Read Wikipedia's own warnings. Banners at the top will say things like "lacks sufficient sources" or "has peacock writing". These are flags that something is not right.

  • Check the talk page. If there's edit warring going on, approach the current revision with a grain of salt.

  • Look at the amount and quality of sources. If there are a lot of sources that are of decent quality (i.e., no tabloids, or other such nonsense) you're probably good to go.

  • Check the grammar. If it's sloppily written, that's a bad sign - an editor hasn't gotten around to it to clean up.

If the article passes all these checks, it is very likely that it's good to go. See for example the article cited by another answerer - these good articles are just as good as those in a normal encyclopedia.

Let me next address your questions about peer review. Currently, an experiment at Wikipedia means that there are some restrictions on who can create articles, and all new articles (both those created as drafts by new users and those created directly on the site) are reviewed, though there are currently backlogs.

Edit: As of a few weeks ago this has been put permanently in place. All unregistered users cannot create new articles and must do so as drafts.

Returning to your regularly scheduled program answer...

As for edits, tons of users constantly scan for vandalism - a lot of the most egregious stuff is reverted almost instantly. Not every edit is individually reviewed, necessarily, but I'd guess that due to the level of effort put toward vandalism patrol, quite a few are. Further, since there are WikiProjects and tons of users who simply love a subject, articles are frequently read and checked by experts and enthusiasts.

I might recommend checking out Wikipedia for yourself - by which I mean, try editing Wikipedia. Create an account, learn the policies. See how it all ticks. I did, and have enjoyed it (and also learned a lot about both Wikipedia and all sorts of interesting subjects) and it has certainly increased my awareness of how good the info I get from Wikipedia is, and how to judge when it isn't good.

Hope this helps!

My opinion is for neutral subjects it can be largely trusted but for controversial topics like politics, religion and disputes it can be used as reading material but take it with a pinch of salt. For example you can trust article on Betelgeuse or Black hole but not much an article on Jesus or Hitler.

  • 4
    That is a very subjective stance, though. Without going down to examine your examples, or ask you to elaborate, I just point out that - as every Wikipedia user should know - controversial pages like "Jesus" are strongly monitored by the community to avoid vandalism or provocative edits. On the other hand, an article about "Betelgeuse" can be as wrong as any other to the eyes of someone who knows little about the topic. – FraEnrico Dec 26 '17 at 13:20
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    @FraEnrico: If someone knows little about Betelgeuse his or her edits will be corrected by someone who knows better and in that case nobody has any emotional investment in obfuscating facts about that star. But in the case of Jesus, it is mostly monitored by Christian zealots who obviously have written that page in such a manner which completely supports whatever Bible says about him. Almost all Christianity related pages on Wikipedia are monitored and tightly controlled by Christian zealots who don't want any factual thing written on those articles. – Rolen Koh Dec 26 '17 at 17:57
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    Yes, you are referring to "controversial topics" versus "science", and you are right in that – FraEnrico Dec 27 '17 at 11:42
  • @RolenKoh You going to back up your extreme claims with some specific examples of zealotry on the "Jesus" wikipedia page? For example, does this sound like zealotry? "Scholars regard the gospels as compromised sources of information because the writers were trying to glorify Jesus." Perhaps you're the zealot for your contempt for those involved in editing Wikipedia ;) – curiousdannii Dec 27 '17 at 15:20
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    @RolenKoh can you give an example of a verifiable 100% correct fact that has not been allowed on an article and can you link or provide a quote of exactly what the edit was that was rejected? Your statements come across as being ill thought out and I think its because you are trying to force a particular view into the article (that someone didnt exist at all) rather than at least admitting that there isnt any logical reason why a person would be completely made up even if what said about them was false. Theres no precedent anywhere for people to completely invent a person who never existed. – The Great Duck Dec 30 '17 at 21:18

If you search a little bit, you will find article after article dealing with this question, especially in the academic sphere. There is a long list of criticism of Wikipedia.

Some of it goes back to it nature, such as the fact that it is a crowd-sourced site. Some of it goes back to its policies, e.g. its open denial of expert knowledge or its stance on deletism. And some of it goes back to its practices, such as closed administrator circles or the running of the foundation.

So in essence, many different people have many different reasons to be somewhere between cautious and critically opposed to Wikipedia, and in considering all of their arguments and their respective validities, one has to admit that at least some of the criticism is most likely true and important enough to not rely on Wikipedia as a source.

That does not mean you cannot use Wikipedia at all, but it should be one of your sources, not the only or the primary one. Some schools or universities have a strict policy of not using Wikipedia as a source at all, but even that does not mean you cannot go to Wikipedia to get a quick overview of a topic and find links to primary and secondary sources there, which you then can use and cite.

  • So you could use it to cite, but it shouldn't be used to much, and take other sources to find similarities to find if the facts of the subject are reliable? – iiRosie1 Dec 28 '17 at 0:27

Wikipedia is a great place to start research, as it can point to other references.

Don't use it as a source.

Before reading, choose to remain open-minded about its truthfulness.

Here are some reasons why:

Note: Wikipedia is probably almost as accurate as other encyclopedias, especially in STEM subjects. Remember:

  • Politically-charged topics—unlike mathematically proofs—often result in biased articles.
  • Writers of traditional encyclopedias are probably biased, too.
  • Wikipedia is useful because it has a huge base of knowledge, is quickly added upon, and quickly edited. Traditional encyclopedias are slow to update.
  • Yes, it's true that anyone can edit, but it has to go through moderation review. – iiRosie1 Dec 28 '17 at 16:06
  • But sometimes you can't really trust that once it goes through moderation review, it means everything is correct. – iiRosie1 Dec 28 '17 at 16:06

No information source is entirely trustworthy. But for purposes of citation, we need to distinguish three kinds of information: evidence, interpretation, and reporting.

Evidence is the original data.

Interpretation is what something thinks the original data, or a collection of data means.

Reporting is someone else passing on the interpretation, perhaps in different language suitable to a different audience.

Wikipedia is, by its charter, 100% reporting.

With reporting, there is always the issue of bias. That is, the person doing the reporting may have an axe to grind and may therefore not report honestly or accurately. They may twist the original evidence or interpretation to suit their own ends.

In the early days of the web, where no one really understood what was happening online, it was assumed that the work of professional writers and scholars working for a publishing house must be more honest reporting than the work of anonymous strangers on the internet. Some people still feel this way. But we now understand how social proof and participatory editing work and it seems that while the process is very different, the effect is just as reliable (and far more complete) than that of the professional publishing houses.

Thus Wikipedia is largely rehabilitated as a source of reporting. Obviously, as with other sources of reporting, not every article it contains is equally trustworthy. You always have to do a degree of due diligence, particularly on articles that may not get much attention and therefore don't have the mechanisms of social proof going for them.

We should also note that neither social proof or academic and commercial blessing mean that reporting is always accurate. Societies always live a lie to one extent or another. There are always conclusions that may be completely true which are outlawed by the cohesive lie of the society in which they are reported. In short, there are some things you are not allowed to say no matter how true they may be. There are not societies in which this is not true of something.

For scholarly purposes, however, you have to make a distinction between when it is appropriate to cite research, interpretation, and reporting. All three may be acceptable for different purposes, but for anything that touches the heart of the argument you are making, citing reporting is unacceptable. You have to report interpretation or evidence, ideally evidence. This is not a critique of Wikipedia. It is simply about maintaining the ability to trace the assertions in an argument back to their source, and citing reporting is not consistent with that aim.

tl;nr; Wikipedia is far from perfect, but a statement "don't use wikipedia" is quite extreme. When somebody has interest to falsify an article, it's not trustworthy. Otherwise it normally is.

Wikipedia has mechanisms to verify content - lots of articles cite information sources, some articles are protected and only certain people can edit them, etc. Before trusting the article you need to check whether the source really states what the article says (I have seen sources which are completely bogus). It is not required that an article passes review after being modified, but there are users who do that on selected articles (or just on random recent changes). Article "vandalism" is usually caught quickly.

You can ask yourself whether somebody has an interest to falsify a given article. Without ever having read them, I'd suppose articles like Alligator or Computer keyboard are quite trustworthy. On the other hand, I wouldn't really trust Catalan independence or Monsanto (at least not for everything).

--

The fact is, there are paid editors on wikipedia. I have some personal experience with that.

Several years ago there were discussions about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and I noticed several people were putting lots of effort to remove the word "controversial" from the first paragraph. When there are such disagreements, people make discussions, but nobody was really giving arguments why the word shouldn't be there (it came from two trustworthy sources). Somebody repeatedly removed the word stating as reasons things like "We decided to remove it in the discussion" while there was nothing like that in the discussion. This was obviously a paid editor.

I decided to monitor the article and several days later new attempts to remove the word started from different accounts. The problem is that wikipedia has a rule that you cannot revert more than 3 times in a day and I was the only person trying to stop the editors. After making 4 reverts, I got reported by one of the paid editors (Phoenix7777). I tried explaining the situation to several people (including administrators), but nobody responded.

protected by Neil Fein Dec 28 '17 at 19:29

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