Wikipedia vs. Peer Reviewed Sources

We’ve all done it… You want to garner a quick overview of a topic, so without thinking you drop the terms in a Google search, click on the hit to Wikipedia, and engage in information gathering.

Of course most of us have at least considered the credibility (or lack thereof) of the information, although we still go to Wikipedia as if by default.

Here in the library, we like to use errors/hoaxes on Wikipedia and the prejudiced editing of Wikipedia articles as learning points, with a plug to our subscribed online encyclopedias. But we know students will use Wikipedia just as we all do.

It all still begs the question: How credible is Wikipedia?

wikipedia debate

In 2005 the peer-reviewed journal Nature published an article comparing the accuracy of entries on specific science topics in Encyclopædia Britannica and Wikipedia [click here to access the article through the library’s subscription to Nature], a story picked up by many national news outlets, including CNET. The Nature authors say:

The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.

In an interesting study of dueling empirical methods, Encyclopædia Britannica took Nature to task and refuted their findings in their own study, available through this link. (For further information on the duel, check out this timeline from the UC system.)

Nonetheless, many took Nature’s proclamation to mean we could, more or less, rely on the information gleaned from Wikipedia. Personally, I took this to confirm that there is no one “truth” and that the credibility of “facts” will always be debated based on someone’s viewpoint.

Now, almost a decade since Nature kicked off the squabble, the peer-reviewed Journal of the Osteopathic Association has found the opposite [click here to read the article through the library’s subscription to JAOA], a story picked up by the Daily Mail and other media outlets. The JAOA authors say:

Most Wikipedia articles representing the 10 most costly medical conditions in the United States contain many errors when checked against standard peer-reviewed sources. Caution should be used when using Wikipedia to answer questions regarding patient care. 

And thus, the pendulum swings the other way. As the Daily Mail says, “Do NOT try to diagnose yourself on Wikipedia!” and with that, the (lack of) credibility of Wikipedia is again introduced into our collective consciousness.

I find that Wikipedia is great for stuff that will never make it into the Encyclopædia Britannica, for example the Berghain in Berlin (“the best club in the world”), and that it’s helpful for doing pre-research: getting my acronyms straight, deconstructing my search topic into related terms, confirming what year something took place. I then use this information to go elsewhere, to my trusted sources that I consider credible.

What do you think? When do you go to Wikipedia and when do you go elsewhere? What are your alternatives to Wikipedia? Leave your thoughts in the comments.


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