Why Wikipedia is not suitable for academic research?

Posted by Greten on 25 Apr 2013 under Thoughts

In one of my earlier article about determining the credibility of a website for conducting research for your essay, term paper or thesis, I stressed that Wikipedia is not a good reference, but a good source of references if you visit the bottom and check the references there. Allow me to explain in details why that's the case. It is not my intention to disparage or discredit Wikimedia. However, the paradigm and developmental model on which it was built, in my opinion, makes it unreliable source of information.

Ironically, I will be using a couple of Wikipedia articles as references for this entry. Well, we are talking about Wikipedia here. If they still got mistake telling people about their own website, then I don't know about the rest of their content.

How Wikipedia came into being?

Before I explain why Wikipedia should not be used as reference for an academic research, allow me to narrate first the history of Wikipedia . As you will find later in the next section, the evidences why it is not a reliable academic reference can be found within its own history.

Sometime in the late 1999 and early 2000, Jimmy Wales came up with an idea of developing an online encyclopedia maintained by volunteers, and hired Larry Sanger to serve as editor-in-chief. That online encyclopedia was named Nupedia. It is considered as the precursor of Wikipedia but operates in a different manner. It does not use Wiki. Instead, running on its own custom made content management system. It has an extensive editorial process like in professional encyclopedias with a committee of experts. However, one year after it was launched, it only obtained 21 approved articles.

wikipedia not for researchNupedia initially used its own license called Nupedia Open Content License for those who would like to use its articles. At around this time, the Free Software Foundation is also planning to create its own free encyclopedia which they intend to name GNUPedia. When Richard Stallman of the GNU Project managed to convinced the administrators of Nupedia to changed its license to GNU Free Documentation License, the Free Software Foundation decided to abandon their plan of creating their own encyclopedia and instead throw their support on Nupedia.

In the early 2001, Larry Sanger suggested on the Nupedia mailing list the use of Wiki content management system to create a parallel encyclopedia that would serve as "feeder" for Nupedia. Basically, the plan is to have this Wiki-based encyclopedia open for everyone to edit and not vetted by experts. Overtime, the articles in this encyclopedia will be examined by experts and once approved, will be moved to Nupedia. This feeder encyclopedia is called Wikipedia.

Over the next few months, Wikipedia volunteers expanded from early volunteers who also came from Nupedia. Without the rigorous process of Nupedia, the articles in Wikipedia grew at a much faster rate, with 20,000 articles in 18 languages by the end of 2001. During this time, Larry Sanger was spending more time in Wikipedia than in Nupedia. By December 2001, Jimmy Wales can no longer sustain the salary of editor-in-chief due to bad internet economy and thus Sanger resigned on both projects.

With so many volunteers, Wikipedia continue to live-on and grow without Sanger, while Nupedia submerged into oblivion. In September 2003, the Nupedia website was shut down, and its articles were moved to Wikipedia. The Free Software Foundation continue to support Wikipedia as successor of Nupedia.

As of year 2009, Wikipedia is using Creative Commons licenses, with GNU being supported in few cases. Most content of Wikipedia, however, has its license replaced from GNU Free Documentation License to Creative Commons. I have no information as to how much support does Wikipedia currently get from Free Software Foundation and if the change of license also change its support.

So why Wikipedia is not credible?

It is credible to some extent. It's just not credible enough for your school requirements or scholarly research. From knowing the history of Wikipedia, we can derive two reasons.

First reason: credibility is not part of the original plan

First, it was not meant to be a credible academic encyclopedia. It was meant to be a feeder for Nupedia, and it is Nupedia which was meant to be a credible academic encyclopedia. We can compare Wikipedia to a factory machine with sole function of producing as many products as possible within the shortest period of time. These products will be transmitted through a conveyor belt to the quality control. The Nupedia editorial process is this quality control, and the articles that made it to Nupedia is the final product that goes out to the market. Now that they removed the quality control, what is your assurance that you are getting a quality product?

I use to work in textbook publishing industry. I know the difference between a manuscript, an early draft and a finished book ready for sale. Wikipedia looks more like a manuscript or early draft than a finished book.

Many articles in Wikipedia contain tags that in normal books appear only during the editorial process such as "NPOV" (neutral point of view) tag and "Marked for deletion". There are also too many "citations needed" and other clues indicating that the article is not yet finished. Wikipedia seems to be in perpetual editorial process. It is because it was originally meant to be a draft, the first part of the editorial process in which the final article is to be included in Nupedia. Using Wikipedia as a reference is like using a raw manuscript instead of the final book as your source.

Second reason: you cannot beta test an encyclopedia

The second reason is that the free and open source software (FOSS) model is not useful in creating encyclopedias, books, magazines and other informational products. A free online encyclopedia, for all intent and purpose, is also a free software because it is just a piece of data stored in some server somewhere in the world. The Free Software Foundation was successful in creating and sponsoring free software PROGRAMS, but the same technique is not going to work in informational products.

The only basis to tell if a free software program is successful or not is if it is working properly as planned. If you want to create a free software, you define and describe how it should function and you can gather volunteers (or do all the work yourself). Some volunteer doing the programming and some doing the beta testing. For those doing the beta testing, they only need to know how the program is suppose to work, and if it deviates from the way it is supposed to work, they can send their notes to the programmers. The value of a software program comes from its capability to do the job it was designed to do, and it's easy to test that.

You can also gather volunteers to create a free online encyclopedia. Then, after that what? You cannot beta test encyclopedias. You can beta test the content management system and the website structure but not the content. The value of encyclopedias is not on whether they can do a particular task or not, but whether the information they have is accurate. Accuracy of information is not something that can be decided by consensus of non-experts. You cannot build encyclopedia using the same method that created GNU/Linux or LibreOffice.

Wikipedia can still be useful in some ways

What is nice about Wikipedia is that it require references, and many of them are links to other websites. You can use those links to get other references for your academic essay (or thesis or term paper) instead. Of course you still need to examine if those websites are credible. For those references that are in print such as books or scientific journals, you can list them and try looking for them in your school library or in a public library. However, you are still likely to find articles without references. I suggest you just ignore them and look for credible references elsewhere.

So let me ask. Are you going to use (or are you using) Wikipedia as reference materials? Are you going to let your students cite it as a source?


Last updated on 09 Dec 2018.

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