In my seminar courses, students are expected to research and write papers on topics related to science. Invariably, many of them will submit papers that cite Wikipedia as a source for some assertion. I tell them that Wikipedia is not a credible source for authoritative information and should never be used when submitting any paper.
The reason for this is that wikipedia is an open source encyclopedia where absolutely anyone can edit and update entries and the submissions are largely anonymous. Since there is no identifiable and authoritative person behind the information, there is no way to judge the credibility of the information. This contrasts with things like the Encyclopedia Brittanica which solicits articles from experts in the fields and the resulting articles are then peer-reviewed and vetted by editors to ensure quality in both the content and the writing.
So my message to students has been quite simple: no to Wikipedia and yes to Encyclopedia Brittanica.
My anti-Wikipedia stance received some support from the recent disclosure of a hoax by an author who wrote a scurrilous biography of someone that contained palpable untruths. The person whose ‘biography’ was faked discovered its existence and was justifiably incensed, and his actions subsequently led to the unmasking of the hoaxer.
But then comes along another study that compared the accuracy of entries in Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Brittanica and found them to be comparable. Aaron Shaffer has a nice entry on this that compares the two and finds that on some measures, Wikipedia may be even better.
So should I change my advice to students and allow Wikipedia? The answer is no. As long as the articles are anonymous, they remain a no-no for academic publications. Academia has no use for anonymous information. Much of our work is based on trusting the work of our peers. The assumption is that someone who has a responsible position in an academic institution has too much at stake to willfully mislead or even be sloppy in their work. Signing their name and giving their institutional affiliation means that the institution now also has a stake in the information being correct.
Having said all that, I must add that I like Wikipedia and am impressed with the whole concept and with the quality of the information that it provides. I often use it myself to learn about things quickly. It is an interesting example of ‘the wisdom of crowds,’ how when a large enough number of people are actively involved in something, the resulting quality of the finished product can be quite high. It is a highly intriguing experiment in information democracy.
So my advice to students is to use it to get a quick overview of something and to get started on learning about it. But then to go to some authored source for substantiation and citation. Because although Wikipedia may be right most of the time, in academic discourses, who said it is sometimes as important as what is said.