Question everything — even Wikipedia

Kelly Byer

Students, faculty still question the site’s credibility

Source Wikipedia. org

Credit: DKS Editors

“We do not expect you to trust us.”

That places sixth on Wikipedia’s list of “Ten things you may not know about Wikipedia.”

Wikipedia’s Web page continues to state how the online encyclopedia is “not a primary source” and as a fairly new form of free knowledge, has its limitations.

But some students and professors already know not to trust the free online encyclopedia.

Chrissy Pahls, freshman management and information systems major, said she does most of her research at Kent State’s University Library or the library’s Web site. Pahls said the library Web site has more to offer than Wikipedia, which she tries to avoid using.

“I don’t think it’s a very reliable Web site,” Pahls said.

Kevin Floyd, assistant professor of English, said while Wikipedia may be a good idea, it lacks monitoring. He also said he knows “from personal experience that Wikipedia can be misleading.”

“Wikipedia is not a legitimate source because it is not authoritative,” Floyd said. “You have no idea who wrote it or where it came from.”

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While Wikipedia has no “editorial board” and its content can be written and edited by anyone, there are procedures in place to correct incorrect information, according to its Web site.

Wikipedia has more than 1,000 people who are administrators with the power to enforce Wikipedia’s guidelines and policies, according to its Web site. People can revise pages or create editing programs to catch or correct bad edits, and as a last resort, a judicial committee can decide to withdraw or restrict editing abilities.

On the top right tab of all editable Wikipedia pages, there is also a history page including previous content, the time and date of an edit and the user who edited it.

Elizabeth Smith, assistant professor of history, said she doesn’t recommend using Wikipedia because where the information comes from isn’t exactly known.

“My opinion of Wikipedia is that you have to be very careful using it,” Smith said. “I would always be cautious about what I found on it.”

Matt Harlow, freshman pre-med biology major, said he prefers Google Scholar or the library’s Web site to Wikipedia.

“I’ve heard a lot of bad things about (Wikipedia),” he said. “I try not to use it.”

Harlow said he doesn’t trust sites like Google and Wikipedia and uses them as a last resort. While he said he would read the information, he wouldn’t use it as a cited source.

Wikipedia’s Web site itself states, “It is in the nature of an ever-changing work like Wikipedia that, while some articles are of the highest quality of scholarship, others are admittedly complete rubbish.”

Still, more than a third of American adult Internet users visit Wikipedia, according to the Pew Research Center. And the contributor-written online encyclopedia has greater popularity among well-educated people, with 50 percent of the site’s users having at least a college degree and 22 percent with only a high school diploma.

Smith said while she has no way to know for certain if Wikipedia is popular among students, she thinks it is. The reason for the popularity being how Wikipedia is navigated.

“It’s easy,” Smith said.

In Pew Research’s “Science Online” report, 71 percent of people seeking science information online said convenience mattered, compared to 13 percent who said the Internet gave more accurate information.

Floyd said he thinks Wikipedia is a popular site with students based on the assignments he has received and said students have cited it as a source.

“I can tell from the frequency they use it in research papers,” Floyd said.

Because it is often first on the list of search results, Floyd said he thinks Wikipedia is popularly used.

More than 70 percent of Wikipedia visits for one week in March 2007 came from search engines, according to the Pew Research Center, which received data from Hitwise, an online service that monitors how users interact with Web sites.

Because a main factor in Google’s search results is the amount of links a Web page has, Wikipedia is highly ranked in the results, according to the Pew Research Center.

But the top search result might not always be the best choice.

“The best way to decide whether a particular statement is accurate is to find independent, reliable sources to affirm that statement,” the Wikipedia Web site states, “such as books, magazine articles, television news stories, trade journals or Web sites.”

As Smith said, “In many ways you have to ask questions of everything.”

Contact features correspondent Kelly Byer at [email protected].