What can you trust on Wikipedia?

Wikipedia’s dominance of search results (and the increasing degree to which people equate research to putting something into Google) means it often takes some effort to avoid ending up relying directly or indirectly on the accuracy of information contained in it.

There are though some basic points to bear in mind when wondering whether to trust what you’ve found. Here’s the checklist that I use:

The more surprising the information, the less likely it is to be accurate: whether it is a typo, a mistake or a piece of misdirection in the name of humour, the really surprising information is often so surprising because it is actually wrong. (No, Robbie Williams doesn’t make his money by eating domestic pets in pubs in and around Stoke and no, David Beckham was not an 18th century Chinese goalkeeper.)

The people who contribute to Wikipedia are not a representative sample of the world’s population: as of January 2006, for example, less than 50,000 people worldwide had made five or more edits and as of February that year about 615 people had made more than half of all the edits on the site.

That 50,000 is far, far more than the number of people who contribute to traditional encyclopaedias, but it is a very lopsided slice of humanity. Want to know who was the supporting female actor in a US TV show of the 1990s that was axed after four episodes and only shown once in Britain? Wikipedia’s your friend. But – and it is a crude but useful cliche – the less your topic is likely to be of interest to a computer-obsessed Western teenager, the less likely it is to be well covered. You may be pleasantly surprised, but the further you wander from this comfort zone, the more variable the information becomes.

The more controversial the topic, the better the Wikipedia entry is usually: the slightly counter-intuitive point has perhaps been the most surprising discovery for me as I have used Wikipedia over the years. You might expect Wikipedia’s open editing to mean that the more controversial the topic, the more suspect its content. But controversial topics often attract a lot of attention, edits and administrator involvement, resulting in them usually settling down to a reasonably full list of the arguments on both sides of the controversy.

For example, when I’ve looked up issues to do with the Middle East, I have found that Wikipedia normally gives a pretty good coverage of the arguments on both sides, and hence the issues I need to dig into further and consider before coming to my own views. In that sense, it is a far surer guide than traditional newspaper pieces which – for all their other benefits – often leave out key arguments from one side or the other.

Where Wikipedia’s entries have been weakest in my experience is where the topic attracts very little interest, and so the quality of the entry is much more dependent on the whims of just one or two people. Especially those who love conspiracies, wacky science or both.

Check the history of edits on a page: each Wikipedia page comes with a “history” tab that shows you who has changed what and when on the page. It’s a vital compliment to the information on the main page itself. Is the information you are relying on freshly added? What has been edited back and forth? Is the page a well settled one that has been polished for a long time? And so on.

If the information can’t be found on the internet, it’s unlikely to be in Wikipedia: take a look at the sources given for information on Wikipedia articles. They are overwhelmingly from the internet. If the information is buried away in books, it often doesn’t make it to Wikipedia.

British election results are a great example of this: FWS Craig produced a fantastic set of reference works. But you will almost never find his works cited as the source of information because the books are out of print and never made it online. If research still primarily equaled visiting libraries, his books would be far better known and far more widely used.

Overall, as I put it earlier this year, Wikipedia is probably more prone to errors than other sources, but it is also much more prone to correcting errors. Used with caution it is a boon; used thoughtlessly it can trip you up just like any other source of information.

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