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Publication Date : 01-03-2013
Just how reliable and acceptable is Wikipedia?
It’s that time of the year again, with students rushing term papers or, even more daunting, theses and dissertations. This means putting in time looking for reliable information.
Not too long ago, students resorted to encyclopedias, the more fortunate ones having a multivolume set at home, probably bought by parents from persistent relatives or friends.
The days of the print encyclopedia are numbered; Encyclopedia Britannica published its last 30-volume paper edition in 2010. The Britannica is still available online and on subscription, but it has to compete now with the Internet in general and with Wikipedia in particular.
Wikipedia, described by, what else but a Wikipedia entry, is a “collaboratively edited, multilingual free Internet encyclopedia” that was started in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger (“wiki” a Hawaiian term, means “sticky,” and “pedia” comes from “encyclopedia”).
It allows postings without peer review but produced with guidelines, mainly emphasising a neutral point of view with as many references as possible. Topics should have “notability,” meaning there has been significant published coverage that can be cited. The entries have no bylines of specific authors. Anyone can jump in to suggest changes or to actually edit the text. Some of the topics generate “edit wars,” as furious as exchanges on the blogs.
Wikipedia is now managed by Wikimedia Foundation headed by Wales, and has spun off other reference materials like Wikibooks, Wikispecies (about biological species), Wikiquote, Wiktionary, even Wikiversity.
It is probably still the most well-known, and widely used, claiming some 25 million entries in 285 languages (compared with half a million topics in Encyclopedia Britannica). The most widely used language for Wikipedia is English, with 4.1 million entries. There are now editions in Philippine languages.
Reference to references
How reliable and acceptable is Wikipedia as a reference for academic papers?
Generally, encyclopedia entries, and these include print and Internet editions, are not encouraged as primary references because the information is too general and often simplified. With Wikipedia, an added problem is that it is a work in progress, which means the information there is not always reliable.
You can cite encyclopedias and the Wikipedia but only as part of a critical review of what’s been published, or as a gauge of the knowledge that is out there. Wikipedia itself, as you will see later, can be a focus of social analysis.
Wikipedia does have one added, very serious, danger: It tempts students (and sometimes faculty) to just cut and paste. That’s an invitation to disaster. There’s a Wiki-style that seasoned educators can detect, and it’s easy for us to check if you copied even if you try to modify your plagiarised material. That can mean an automatic failing grade or, in the University of the Philippines, even suspension and, for theses and dissertations, a denial or revocation of your degree.
The warnings aside, I do want to encourage using Wikipedia. Many entries are well-researched, produced by people who are clearly familiar with the topic. In fact, in 2005 the science journal Nature published the results of a research project comparing Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica and found a “similar rate of serious errors” in them.
Over the last few years, as Wikipedia expanded rapidly, quality assurance has become more problematic. There are biographies that sound like “praise releases,” for example, although because they are Wikipedia entries, anyone can add less flattering edits.
Nevertheless, Wikipedia remains a revolutionary development. Jimmy Wales himself says his philosophical outlook draws from Ayn Rand’s objectivism, which emphasises reason, individualism and free enterprise.
Anyone can do a Wikipedia entry. At the same time, Wikipedia emphasises individuals collaborating with each other, and sharing the information. You’ll see their entries, instead of having a copyright, show the Creative Commons logo, which encourages you to copy, but with acknowledgement of the source. Again, a warning: Plagiarism is not the same as Creative Commons.
Here’s how to maximise the usefulness of Wikipedia:
First, look at it as a reference to other references. A well-done Wikipedia article provides a good overview of a topic, together with leads for additional information. Use the hyperlinks, the text in blue which, if you click, takes you to another web page for another article on the topic. Look up the original reference articles whenever possible; many of them are also posted on the Internet.
For example, researching on Sinugboanon, I found a link to a site that had a searchable electronic version of John U. Wolff’s authoritative Cebuano-English dictionary, posted on a site about Bohol!
Second, always maintain a level of healthy scepticism. Be wary of articles that are too effusive, filled with praise for a person or place.
Look for other sources of information, including those cited in the Wikipedia entry itself.
Here’s a specific example: Last year, to write about the monsoon in the Philippines, I ended up looking at an entry on typhoons in the Philippines where the origin of the word “bagyo” as typhoon was explained as a strong 1911 storm that hit Baguio City. I had a gut feeling this wasn’t quite correct. I checked Charles Nigg’s Tagalog-English Dictionary, first published in 1904 and available online, and it did yield bagyo as “storm, tempest.” I searched further in my own library with a reprinted edition of Francisco de San Antonio’s Vocabulario Tagalo, originally published in 1624. There again was bagyo, defined in Spanish as “a watery tempest, with strong winds.”
Third, use the many useful tools on Wikipedia. On the upper left hand corner there is a stub labelled “Talk.” Click on it and you’ll find the “edit wars,” with people making suggestions or questioning points raised in the entry. Many other tools are available on the left side of the screen, including ways to download the full Wikipedia entry, for example, importing it as a PDF file.
Finally, explore sites other than the English ones for languages you can read. There are more than 600,000 entries in Chinese (zh.wikipedia.org), often giving a Chinese perspective on things Chinese. There are also several sites now in local languages, the largest one being tl.wikipedia.org (“tl” meaning Tagalog), with more than 60,000 entries. Other local-language editions are in Bikol (Central Bikol, the variety spoken in Albay), Chavacano, Sugboanon (Cebuano), Iloko, Kapampangan, Pangasinan and Winaray.
Many of the local-language entries are just translations of English entries. Locally produced entries tend to be about a region’s towns and cities, or people who figured in its history. I see Wikipedia stimulating more local scholarly work. Currently, the Waray Wikipedia only has two entries in its “mga Waraynon nga bayani” (Waray heroes). I’m sure that can be expanded many times over, without having to canonise living local politicos.
Wikipedia should challenge us to produce more information about ourselves, not just for term papers but as part of heritage work, for Filipinos and for the world.