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Is Wikipedia Reliable?

The creators of Wikipedia are the first to admit that not every entry is accurate and that it might not be the best source of material for research papers. Here are some points to consider:

  • Look for a slant. Some articles are fair and balanced, but others look more like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. If an article has only one source, beware.
  • Consider the source. Even if an article cites external sources, check out those sources to see whether they are being cited fairly and accurately — and do, in fact, reinforce the article's points.
  • Look who's talking. If you research the contributors themselves and find that they are experts in their fields, you can be more confident in the entry.
  • Start here, but keep going. Wikipedia should be a starting point for research but not your primary source for research material.

In December 2005, the scientific journal Nature published the results of a study comparing the accuracy of Wikipedia and the printed Encyclopaedia Britannica. The researchers found that the number of "factual errors, omissions or misleading statements" in each reference work was not so different — Wikipedia contained 162, and Britannica had 123. The makers of Britannica have since called on Nature to retract the study, which it claims is "completely without merit."

When visiting controversial entries, look out for edit wars. Edit wars occur when two contributors (or groups of contributors) repeatedly edit one another's work based on a particular bias. In early 2004, Wikipedia's founders organized an Arbitration Committee to settle such disputes.

Wikipedia does have some weaknesses that more traditional encyclopedias do not. For example

  • There is no guarantee that important subjects are included or given the treatment that they deserve.
  • Entries can be incomplete or in the middle of being updated at any given time.
  • The writers of entries often fail to cite their original sources, thus making it hard to determine the credibility of the material.

These issues should not deter you from using Wikipedia. Just weigh the limitations of Wikipedia — and, for that matter, reference works in general.

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