Wikipedia. Your mom.

“Don’t rely on Wikipedia,” we are often told.  “It is an unreliable resource.”  This is, in varying degrees, true.  The community-based editing that makes Wikipedia vibrant and sometimes more current than traditional news sources also makes it subject to error, bias, and outright fraud and vandalism.  Moreover, from a legal perspective Wikipedia has time and again been rejected as a source of facts subject to judicial notice.*

The problem as I see it is that having decided that Wikipedia is not authoritative, most people decide that it is useless.  This is another example of the “zero sum” arguments that crop up as too-easy answers to areas that deserve a viewing in shades of gray.**  Wikipedia isn’t useless because it needs to be double-checked.  You just have to use it differently than you would a more authoritative resource.  An authoritative case should be Shepardized, and so should Wikipedia entries be bolstered by citable authority.

There is a lot to be commended about many Wikipedia entries – they can give you a fast, clear view on a variety of subjects both trivial and serious.  They can provide you with new vocabulary that might be useful in a full-text search.  And they might give you some additional facts (which, yes, should be double-checked) about a subject which you were previously ignorant of.

So, just as a reporter’s mantra is, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out,” so should a serious researcher’s mantra be, “If you find it on Wikipedia, double-check with an authoritative source.”

After all, we don’t despise our mothers and we needn’t despise Wikipedia.

*See what I did there?  I’m sorry.  I couldn’t resist.

**See also “Wrong Question” and other entries in the “X v. Y” category


If you are interested in seeing how Wikipedia pages develop and evolve, here is a video that describes the process.  It is entertaining and surprisingly current despite having been recorded in 2005.