Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that has articles on over 1,000,000 topics which are collectively written by about 70,000 people. As such, there is controversy over whether or not it should be used as a scholarly source. I argue that Wikipedia is not a good direct source of reliable information, but it is a good source of other sources.
In order to understand why Wikipedia is not a good direct source, one must examine its functionality in depth. In order to accomplish this, we will use the article about Linux, an open source operating system as an example. See the caption on the image below for an understanding of how Wikipedia articles are written.
The Linux article has a lot of information in it, and it’s viewed by lots of people. So how do we all know that this information is factual and correct? The simple answer is that unless we explore the citations directly or already know the facts, we don’t. As quoted by Jenkins,
“Wikipedia’s radical openness means that any given article may be, at any given moment, in a bad state: for example, it could be in the middle of a large edit or it could have been recently vandalized. While blatant vandalism is usually easily spotted and rapidly corrected, Wikipedia is certainly more subject to subtle vandalism than a typical reference work” (Jenkins).
This quotation comes from “Wikipedians” (Jenkins) themselves. They acknowledge that Wikipedia is very much a work in progress, and that its information may not be reliable. To further exemplify this, one can just take a look at any article’s revision history.
We have no idea if these edits are reliable or “verifiable” (Jenkins), or if they’re false information or vandalism. Certainly it is possible for anyone to double-check them and hopefully ensure their reliability, but we have no guarantee as readers that this has happened. Furthermore, as Jenkins points out, we haven’t even decided what counts as reliable: “If one reads the history pages of most Wikipedia entries, one can see vigorous debates about what counts as reliable evidence” (Jenkins). Regardless, the average reader doesn’t bother to find out if the information is considered reliable, which can be very dangerous, potentially resulting in further dissemination of false information. Jenkins quotes a former encyclopedia editor as saying,
“To the ordinary user, the turmoil and uncertainty that may lurk beneath the surface of a Wikipedia article are invisible. He or she arrives at a Wikipedia article via Google, perhaps, and sees that it is part of what claims to be an “encyclopedia”. This is a word that carries a powerful connotation of reliability. The typical user doesn’t know how conventional encyclopedias achieve reliability, only that they do” (Jenkins).
The conclusion here is that without knowledge of where the information came from, Wikipedia is not reliable. For this reason, referencing Wikipedia is risky, and should be done with great skepticism and care. So instead, why not use the sources cited on Wikipedia directly? It is likely that they are considered scholarly sources, and can be referenced with less, but still some skepticism.
Jenkins, Henry. “What Wikipedia Can Teach Us About The New Media Literacies (Parts One and Two).” Confessions of an Aca-Fan. WordPress. 26-27 June 2007. Web. 8 March 2015.