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Q&A

Is Wikipedia Trustworthy?

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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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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/q/32135. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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5 answers

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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).

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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.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/32202. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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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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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/32152. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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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.

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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.

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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.) 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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