Compass is an archive of Library news from 2005 - 2008. For the latest Library news check the Library Blogs.
Compass Newsletter Masthead
   Volume III, Issue 3
February 2007   

What is this thing called Wikipedia?

On January 26, the electronic newsletter Inside Higher Ed carried the story: "A Stand Against Wikipedia," reporting that the history department at Middlebury College had decided "to bar students from citing the Web site as a source in papers or other academic work.”(1) Sounds like common sense to me. After all, whatever its virtues or faults, Wikipedia is essentially an encyclopedia, i.e., a compendium of basic information on a variety of topics; in other words, a tertiary source.

As an instructional librarian, I frequently recommend that students consult specialized encyclopedias, for example, the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science & Technology, when beginning their research, as a way of getting the lay of the land, so to speak, on a topic unfamiliar to them. Encyclopedias are also useful for pointing students to secondary sources: authoritative books, articles and other materials, that will then help them find and interpret primary sources. That's not to suggest that students should actually cite encyclopedias in their bibliography.

In the present era of plunge, plunder and paste, taking the time to peruse an encyclopedia entry on a broad topic probably sounds about as quaint as the Geneva Conventions. Yet, this important first step in the research process, getting the big picture, is often passed over. I frequently observe students dive straight into highly focused journal articles, only to emerge confused about how all those intricate pieces fit together.

To get back to Wikipedia, I shared the Inside Higher Ed article with my library colleagues, and soon a lively e-mail debate ensued. By lunchtime, I had made the foolhardy offer to create and maintain a web page of resources on Wikipedia as a service to those members of the University community who might wish to get to know “the multilingual, Web-based, free content encyclopedia project” better.(2)

My colleague and Compass editor-in-chief also suggested that someone write an article on Wikipedia for the next issue of the newsletter and, as you can see, my foolhardiness got the best of me once more.

So what is this thing called Wikipedia?

Founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales, former options trader turned dot-com businessman, and Larry Sanger, a doctoral student in philosophy, Wikipedia bills itself as “a general encyclopedia … [that] seeks to describe as wide a range of topics as possible.” Its distinctiveness as well as its controversial standing among reference works derive from its Wiki platform (from the Hawaiian term wiki wiki, meaning fast), a type of software that facilitates collaborative authoring. Hence Wikipedia’s motto: “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.”

The “history” tab accompanying each entry provides a permanent record of edits and who made them, and the “discussion” tab provides authors’ views on how sticky aspects of a subject have been handled, statements on article neutrality and other considerations, and resources consulted. Authors frequently identify themselves only with screen names. For instance, Zocky, a prominent Wikipedia author, weighed in with comments on the Inside Higher Ed article. Authors may also remain entirely anonymous, in which case they are identified under the history tab by their IP address.

Collective Intelligence

Wikipedia operates on the principle of collective intelligence.(3) As we read in the encyclopedia’s introductory article, “Wikipedia's philosophy is that free-wheeling collaboration among well-meaning, informed editors will gradually improve the encyclopedia in its breadth, depth and accuracy, and that, given enough time, the truth will win out and even subtle errors will be caught and corrected.” Or, as research consultant Paula Berinstein describes it, Wikipedia is "self-cleaning." (4)

For a fascinating glimpse of the principle of collaborative authorship in action, be sure to view Jon Udell's gem of an eight-minute video "Heavy Metal Umlaut: the Movie," where you will see an article grow and morph before your very eyes. The screencast can be found at

Findability Equals Authority?

Consider this ringing endorsement from an enthusiastic user: “[Wikipedia is] my favorite new tool for quick and complete search results. I got not only a nice overview of Web 2.0, but some excellent background on how the concept of Web 2.0 came about.”(5)

In the words of Peter Morville,“findability determines authority.”(6) Leaving you to ponder this new criterion of excellence, I will simply add that, as an instructional librarian, I have to hand it to Wikipedia for delivering its information to users with a lot less hassle than many of the more scholarly online resources.

Pop culture and sci/tech are Wikipedia’s acknowledged strong suits. However, Brock Read, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, points out that scientific data are often easier for amateur aficionados to verify, while topics in the humanities and social sciences “demand contextual analysis and interpretive finesse, areas that are typically the domain of individual scholars.”(7) Moreover, the history department faculty at Middlebury moved to ban Wikipedia because students had been citing it as a source of incorrect information. In contrast, Roy Rosenzweig, a history professor at George Mason University and director of its Center for History and New Media, lauds the encyclopedia’s “extraordinary freedom [of access] and cooperation [which] make Wikipedia the most important application of the principles of the free and open-source software movement to the world of cultural, rather than software, production.”(8)

So just how accurate can Wikipedia really be when anyone is allowed to create and edit entries, no qualifications asked? Jimmy Wales claims that in the long run all errors are caught and corrected by successive contributors. Journalist John Seigenthaler, Sr., the victim of negative statements in a Wikipedia entry, is not convinced. Neither is co-founder Sanger, who left the online encyclopedia in 2003 over the debate on expertise. In fairness, it should be stated that Wikipedia does have a board of editors, whose authority was strengthened in response to the Seigenthaler incident. Their responsibilities sometimes include intervening in “edit wars” or “reversion wars” between collaborators.(9)

According to a controversial study published in Nature in 2005, independent reviewers compared entries on similar topics appearing in Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica. They concluded that “among the 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica about three.”(10) In a lofty tone, Britannica demonstrated point-by-point that Natures’s study was flawed. Read the dossier, factor in Morville’s criterion of findability along with Berinstein’s observation that even eminent scholars “may be biased and/or harbor hidden agendas” and form your own opinion on Wikipedia’s accuracy.

Acknowledging the Elephant in the Classroom

There are attempts to bring credentialed authors into the Wikipedia fold of collaborators, for example, the WikiProject Russian History, with many of the writers possessing a doctorate.(11) In addition, instructors from elementary school all the way up to the university are finding ways to incorporate Wikipedia into their students’ coursework. By assigning entries for research and verification, instructors convert their students’ Wikipedia habit into coursework capital. To quote Berinstein again,”Because of Wikipedia's known methodology and vulnerabilities, it provides opportunities to teach (and learn) critical thinking.”

When discussing the research process with students I often feel Wikipedia looming like the elephant in the classroom. The students do not mention it nor ask my views on it. They probably think I don't even know about Wikipedia, or if I do, that I choose to snub it, supercilious librarian that I am. Besides, I’m paid to push books and the other often difficult-to-use online resources linked on the library home page.

So I make it my policy to call attention to the elephant, taking a few moments to mention the Wikipedia, the fact that its articles can be edited by anyone, and that the judicious researcher always uses more than one source, whether print or electronic.

I bid you a fond but wiki good-bye and leave you with the musings of Joseph Janes, associate dean, the University of Washington’s Information School and American Libraries columnist:

What can we learn from [Google and Wikipedia]? What features, ideas, and—perhaps more importantly—attitudes can we take and incorporate into librarianship to provide better and more valued services to our communities? Can we make our services and tools more flexible? More personable? More fun? And yet still make sure they are high quality services we’re proud to be associated with, beyond just ‘good enough'? I sure hope so, because that sounds like a winning combination to me.(12)

Contributed by Barbara Quintiliano, instructional design librarian

For further reading: a collection of Resources on Wikipedia.