Should Wikipedia be a Valid Academic Source?

by Haris Krijestorac on March 3, 2011

Are We Questioning the Academic Validity of Wikipedia?

Like many of my fellow students, when I’m working on an assignment that requires some research, Wikipedia is often the first place I’ll go for an overview of a topic. More often than not, I do so under the pretense of a disclaimer that Wikipedia can not be cited as a source. As a result, Wikipedia is often not seen as an acceptable academic source. In spite of this, we still keep coming back to Wikipedia for an overview of the topic. I and my fellow students often have to find another source that restates information that Wikipedia has already given us, a gesture that I can’t help but find to be often unnecessary. To be clear, I am not 100% confident that Wikipedia should indeed be treated as a valid academic source; However, I do believe that the currently prevailing viewpoint on Wikipedia’s lack of validity has become accepted too much as fact, and that the topic needs to be challenged more.

Wisdom of the Crowds vs. ‘Expert Knowledge’

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One way of looking at the strength of Wikipedia is under the context of one of my favorite web phenomena, the Long Tail Effect. While an Encyclopedia provides the reader with content formulated by an elite team of ‘experts’ on a topic, Wikipedia harnesses the wisdom of crowds to democratize our source of knowledge. Therefore, the question of question of whether Wikipedia or a classic Encyclopedia is better can be simplified as the following: Can a handful of experts more knowledgeable than thousands or even millions of laymen? The truth is, it’s not a simple question at all!   Accepting the Encyclopedia as more reliable is the easy move, simply because we are used to this standard. However, since the tides are shifting towards wisdom of crowds and digitization, people in academia should begin to question the logic behind the implied assumption behind accepting the Encyclopedia and not Wikipedia. After all, in spite of digitized versions of the traditional encyclopedia that are out there, many people still use Wikipedia as their source for knowledge.

Google Knol: A Middle Road?

An interesting project that in some ways manifests the idea of balancing wisdom of masses and expertise is Google Knol. While Google sought to fuse the strengths of the Encyclopedia and the wiki, their idea never gained the popularity of either. This idea was implemented by requiring more barriers to entry for editing and creating articles than Wikipedia had. Since I don’t personally use knol, I don’t deny that there may be some niche market for it. Nevertheless, I feel that the Knol case shows that given that much of our information is acquired digitally, most people prefer to hear from many people that are somewhat like themselves rather than from a much smaller group of supposed ‘experts’.

Wikipedia and Democracy

On a broader level, I believe that the question of Wikipedia’s validity raises parallel questions on the nature of democracy in the digital age. The digitization of information has in many ways made knowledge more accessible to masses, both in terms of acquiring it and spreading it. For a long time, many cultures have accepted democracy as the best practical approach to deciding what is right or true. Again, it is a difficult question whether this is truly the best practical approach – but something we often neglect to acknowledge is that it is most likely not the ideal theoretical approach. When we distance ourselves from the concept of democracy we have become so accustomed to, we might see that the fact that most people think something doesn’t necessarily make it true.

 

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In this regard, it is interesting to note that while democracy is considered good in terms of government, democracy of knowledge on the web has not yet been fully embraced. Could it be that web democracy is a more ‘pure’ democratic force, one that can not be easily regulated, and therefore one that we are afraid to accept? Just a speculation :-).


This post originated on Marketing Information Systems, a blog by Haris Krijestorac.

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