Wikipedia as good as the Encyclopedia Brittanica?

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.


  1. says

    Here is another interesting approach to wikipedia and systems like it: “these systems operate on the alien logic of probabilistic statistics, which sacrifices perfection at the microscale for optimization at the macroscale.” … “And a little slop at the microscale is the price of such efficiency at the macroscale. But how can that be right when it feels so wrong? There’s the rub. This tradeoff is just hard for people to wrap their heads around. There’s a reason why we’re still debating Darwin.”

  2. says

    I pretty much agree with your approach. I’ve found wikipedia to be a good starting point for other information. After all, many entries have links to off-site sources where authorship is documented.

  3. William Claspy says

    Good points, Mano. I have done some A/B comparisons in class with Wikipedia and an edited scholarly source, and it is a very interesting exercise. My recommendations to students is similar to yours- use Wikipedia for “quick and dirty” introduction to a topic, then use their bibliography and/or pointers to other web information sources to find authoritative resources.

    From the library,

  4. says

    “As long as the articles are anonymous, they remain a no-no for academic publications. Academia has no use for anonymous information.”

    Does that mean statisticians should throw away the Student-t distribution just because Gosset published it anonymously?

  5. says


    It is not the information itself that is a no-no, it is the citing of the source. There is a lot of good information out there that does not have a clear indicator of who the originator was. In those cases, one has to either verify the validity of the information oneself or, if one is unable to do that, refer to identifiable people who have done the validation.

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