Wikipedia proves to be unreliable

By Vickie Papageorge
October 20, 2006

Wikipedia is the site millions of students go to for quick help with a paper but, according to Anne Schwelm, the coordinator of information access and user services for the Holy Spirit Library, there are numerous, more reliable sources that are available for students to use on a college campus.

This site, which is one of the largest reference websites on the net, provides information to students all over the world. Wikipedia, unlike most traditional encyclopedias is free and written by the people. Its contributors do not have to be qualified to write, but just need the access to a computer.

Anyone can edit the information on Wikipedia which has been provoking the question as to whether this site could qualify as credible and usable for researched information.

In 2005, the questionable reliability of Wikipedia was brought to the attention of the public after slanderous and false information was posted about former assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, John Seigenthaler. A man altered Seigenthaler’s biography and included accusations of Seigenthaler being involved in the Kennedy assassination of both John F. Kennedy and his brother. The post turned out to be a joke by a man by the name of Brian Chase. The incident directed the public’s attention to the possible inaccurate information that lurked all over Wikipedia and various other sites.

The site was created in 2001 by Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales. Today there are 67,000 contributors working on over 4,600,000 articles in over 100 languages.

Wikipedia is a “wiki” website which means that anyone can have access to edit any of the information visible. It was an offshoot of another project that Wales was trying to perfect but then Sanger introduced him to the “wiki” concept. Wales was immediately interested and they both decided it would be a good format for a less formal encyclopedia.

Browsing through the site, there is large amounts of information about Wikipedia, its purpose, and also its disadvantages. The site thoroughly explains its format and the downfalls it creates. The site explains that Wikipedia could have a tendency to present biased ideas at times because of the people who decided to edit the information. Sometimes the information could reflect a certain author’s point of view which immediately makes the information less worthy. Schwelm went on to explain that the site is a “.org” which means that anyone can buy a “.org” site and post any information they please. “A more reliable site to research for information would be, .edu, .gov and so on,” said Schwelm.

The risk for having false information could result in severe consequences for students who use the information in their projects and papers for school. Dr. Seth Frechie, associate professor of English, said “Since Wikipedia can be updated by its users it is, generally speaking, an unreliable source for academic research. That said, ideas and insights generated there can be tested against more credible sources.”

There have been many circumstances where people add information without having citable sources on Wikipedia and many look over the quality and just use the information; blind to the fact that it could be wrong. The site said, “Users need to be aware of this in order to obtain valid information and avoid misinformation.”

While many believe the site cannot be credited with having valid information for students to use, students continue to search Wikipedia for information on many topics. “I use Wikipedia all the time for my papers, especially when you want to summarize information, it’s a reliable source,” Kelsey Neil, senior sociology major said.

Dawn Francis, associate professor of English and communication, said, “I don’t take issues with students consulting to gain background information on their research topic; however, there are better, more scholarly sources that students should consult in order to write their papers.”

Wikipedia will continue to provide students with information regardless of the origin and it is in the power of the many that use the website to distinguish and be aware of the questionable information.

Schwelm’s final thoughts were, “With the hundreds of thousands of dollars of electronic resources that the library provides, I would that those would be used in preference to Wikipedia.”

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Vickie Papageorge

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