With just one click of a mouse, anyone can become connected to thousands of pages of information on the Internet: sports statistics, celebrity gossip, mathematical theories, biographies, etc. But who is to say this information is correct? There is no designated monitor for all of the information on the web and almost anyone can be published.
So how do we know if we can trust a particular web source? Wikipedia.com is one example of a reference Web site that has come under fire in recent months. Wikipedia is a site that features a database of entries on thousands of topics in almost every language. The catch: anyone can submit information and anyone can edit entries. This public domain factor is the exact reason why the reliability of the Web site has been questioned recently.
Assistant Professor of Library Science Dr. Mary Ann Bell is aware of several concerns with the Wikipedia on-line encyclopedia.
“The most popular criticism, and it is a valid concern, is that anybody can change or alter entries, and anyone can submit entries. This is both its strength and its weakness,” she said. “But while working with students, my standpoint is that they could find something better.”
Bell feels that with some topics, disagreement is inevitable and can get in the way of an entry’s objectivity. The public entry then becomes biased and “it gets problematic.”
In topics such as politics, she believes, bias definitely gets in the way.
“The different political parties constantly alter each other’s entry information,” she said, “especially during an election year.”
History professor Ken Hendrickson has assorted views over the Web site.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” he said. “They aren’t able to check all of their facts. Still, I tell my students to use it because it opens up new topics. Just beware.”
He agrees that some topics are more problematical than others because of bias. Since anyone can publish or alter an entry, preconceived notions affect the neutrality on the entry.
“There was one entry on Middle Eastern relations, where there was a difference of interpretations,” said Hendrickson. “One person got on there and wrote their version of events, and then another person edited their entry saying they were biased. They actually had this verbal entry war on the site.”
Other problems with Wikipedia include those who go on the site just to experiment. According to Bell, there have been situations where teachers have their students purposely post wrong information on the site to see if anyone changes it.
Despite all of the apparent negative aspects of Wikipedia however, there are rewards to having a site that allows everyone’s input. Frank Hoffmann, professor of library science, believes that the fact Wikipedia addresses topics that most encyclopedias fail to recognize is an advantage of the site.
“Wikipedia is so diverse; I find it is a good way to get grounded in a subject,” said Hoffmann. “I can find a horror story with any standard reference information. Wikipedia is no better and no worse, it just gets bad press.”
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Hoffmann feels that other encyclopedias have just as many disadvantages as Wikipedia does. “My three major faults with other encyclopedias are that they give spotty coverage, the information is not thorough or too short and the information is out of date,” he said. “Some other encyclopedias actually print biographical inaccuracies to see if other reference materials violate copyright laws and steal their information.”
Hoffmann also believes that Wikipedia is a decent source because it offers so many more topics than regular reference materials. Since anyone is allowed to submit entries on Wikipedia, people have the freedom to write on topics that they are dedicated to even if they are unknown.
“There are world scholars out there that write entries about generally unknown subjects because they are fascinated by the topic. Because it is a lifetime interest, they are conscious of the information they put in each entry. They are serious writers, so they take the time to double check the quality,” said Hoffmann.
Hoffmann also perceives that the problems of Wikipedia lay within the researcher, not exactly the Web site. He believes that students should learn to be better researchers and take the information they receive from Wikipedia with more consideration.
“Wikipedia itself is fine. The problem is that entry level and even some college students have not been taught that facts should not be taken for granted,” said Hoffmann. “They haven’t learned that they shouldn’t take things literally yet. We should train these students to be more critical of reference material.”
The Wikipedia on-line encyclopedia is one of the largest databases for information on the Internet. And because it is public domain, there are advantages and disadvantages of using the site primarily for research. But with any reference material, information should be taken critically and should not always be blindly accepted. Just remember: the Internet is a whole different world out there and nothing is always what it seems.