With more than 56 million articles and available in more than 300 languages, Wikipedia is the online and free-content encyclopedia and is considered the largest source of information created by mankind, surpassing even the iconic Britannica encyclopedia. In an age where fakes news, is it worth asking yourselfhow reliable is Wikipedia?
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The first thing you should consider is that Wikipedia is an open content collaborative platform, so in theory anyone with an internet connection can modify the content at any time. And although it has rules for your editors and measures to ensure verifiabilityLike the recent code of conduct to prevent misinformation, you are likely to encounter content of questionable quality on occasion.
There have been many cases, especially in biographies and matters related to politics. One of the most emblematic was in 2008, when the entry on Sarah Palin was modified hours before being nominated as a candidate for the vice presidency of the United States with flattering details by the Republican campaign itself. And more recently, in September 2021, a Chilean presidential candidate It caused controversy after he used the platform during a television debate.
Since in 2005 the magazine Nature compared the information available on the platform with that offered by the prestigious encyclopedia Britannica, numerous researchers They have tried to answer the question about how reliable Wikipedia is.
One of the first studies was prepared by the magazine Nature, which in 2005 conducted a peer review to compare the scientific coverage of 42 entries in both encyclopedia. Although he detected numerous errors in the two, there were no big differences: on average he detected four inaccuracies in Wikipedia and three in Britannica.
Other research published in 2008 by Reference Services Review evaluated nine articles on historical topics from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, The Dictionary of American History, American National Biography Online with those from Wikipedia. The study identified errors in eight of the nine encyclopedia entries and estimated their accuracy rate to be 80 percent, lower than 95-96 percent from the other sources.
In 2011, the magazine PS Political Science & Politics published a study by British researcher Adam Brown of Brigham Young University. After reviewing “thousands of articles” and evaluating their accuracy and completeness on candidates, elections and officials, he concluded that the information available was “almost always accurate” in relevant articles, but that omissions were “extremely frequent”, in especially on older or controversial issues.
Wikipedia articles on health topics have also been analyzed. In a 2012 study, experts evaluated information on ten mental health topics at 14 sites, including the encyclopedia. They concluded that Wikipedia was superior in all areas, beating Britannica and a standard psychiatry book.
These are mixed results on content validity. But the researchers – and even the Co-founder of the platform himself – have also warned about some biases on the type of content, in social, demographic and even geographical aspects. Among them are:
“Wikipedia does not guarantee its validity.” In this way, the encyclopedia titles his disclaimer about the content it hosts. “Nothing found here has necessarily been reviewed by people with the experience necessary to provide you with complete, accurate or reliable information,” he warns.
Although he clarifies that “this does not mean that you will not find valuable and accurate information on Wikipedia; most of the time you will ”, it specifies that it cannot“ guarantee the validity of the information found here ”, as other encyclopedias and reference works do.
Among other aspects that prevent it from guaranteeing the validity of the available information, Wikipedia cites the following:
- No formal peer review: Wikipedia is not peer-reviewed, although the publishing community uses tools to monitor new and changed content.
- There is no obligation to correct errors: readers do not have the obligation to correct or warn about deficiencies that they detect in the articles.
- Acts of vandalism: it is possible that the articles that have been reviewed, could have been edited in an “inappropriate way”, just before a user consults them.
Wikipedia is an excellent starting point to begin any investigation, but it is best not to consider it as the primary source of information. In fact, the platform itself puts it that way. For this reason, every time you review an article, we recommend that you take the following actions before using its content.
- Verify the claims: the best thing to do is to verify that the content of the articles are backed by primary sources, especially those on sensitive topics.
- Check out the footnotes: Not only is it enough that an article has a footnote, but it verifies and checks that the information cited is correct.
- Look for complementary sources: try to find additional information, to contrast the information available on Wikipedia.
- Never quote Wikipedia: the platform itself recognizes that it is not a primary source and recommends not citing it as a source of information.