I’m teaching a class on social media for Mississippi University for Women’s Life Enrichment Program this semester. Our first class was Tuesday night, and we started by reviewing some staggering statistics: 48 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, more than 600 million people actively use Facebook, 1 billion tweets are sent per week.
I’ve taught older adults in similar classes in the past, and every time I start talking about Wikipedia — the online encyclopedia compiled by the general public rather than by editors — students get a skeptical look on their faces.
Any one of us can instantly add, edit or delete virtually any Wikipedia article without even registering on the website. The traditional print edition of Encyclopedia Britannica has about 250,000 entries. Compare this to more than 3.7 million articles on Wikipedia.
The obvious concern is over the accuracy of a reference guide compiled by the general public.
The theory is that even though there may be abuses and errors in any Wikipedia entry at any one time, responsible users will eventually make the necessary corrections. Over time more and better information will be added.
While reviewing the Wikipedia entry on Columbus on Tuesday night, student George Barnes uncovered an error. Columbus was identified as being 180 miles north of Meridian. Any self-respecting Columbian knows we are 92 miles from the Queen City, so we made this correction in just a couple of minutes.
How accurate is it?
A few years ago the journal Nature published a study on the accuracy of Wikipedia compared to Encyclopedia Britannica. The researchers conducted a peer review of a certain number of scientific entries in both encyclopedias.
Nature reported, “Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopedia.”
The researchers also found 162 “factual errors, omissions or misleading statements” in Wikipedia and 123 such errors in Britannica. A difference? Yes. A significant difference? Not really.
Encyclopedia Britannica protested the results of the study, saying, “almost everything about the journal’s investigation … was wrong and misleading.” Nature responded to that protest and stood by their findings. Subsequent similar studies had similar findings to the Nature study.
Should I use it?
Wikipedia is an amazing collection of information and is invaluable for quickly learning about virtually any subject. All encyclopedias are secondary sources, and, like any secondary source, Wikipedia should be verified with primary sources. Don’t remember the difference between a primary and secondary source? Google “secondary source,” and chances are good the Wikipedia definition of the term will be the first search result.
Peter Imes is publisher of The Dispatch. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.