In Praise of Wikipedia

Wikipedia ( ) is a free encyclopedia on the Web.  As it is set up in wiki format, anyone can edit or add content.  Administrators keep an eye on specific sections and make changes as needed.  Wikipedia and its associated projects, including Wiktionary ( ), are managed by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.

What I Love About Wikipedia
It is free to search and edit.  The project was founded by Jimmy Wales, who contributed capital and ideas.  It is now supported entirely by grants and donations.

It is collaborative.  Anyone can create a topic or edit a pre-existing topic.  Wikipedia grows faster and is more up-to-date than it could be if it relied on paid staff.  It also draws on the knowledge of a wider range of people than a traditional encyclopedia can tap.

It is explicit.  You can often find out who added parts of the content, and why they added them.  You can also find out background details about many of the editors and administrators who have created a topic.

It can be challenged.  The Church of Christ, Scientist page, for instance, has a detailed discussion page about whether or not Christian Science is a cult.  The Skepticism topic has a note The neutrality of this article is disputed.  Please see discussion on the talk page.

It has useful features.  There are disambiguator pages to help in the selection of homographs.  For example, if I search for indexing I am redirected to index where I find 10 meanings, including the US city called Index, indexes in publishing, the default page on a Web site, and index fingers.  Another useful feature is the spoiler warning when the endings of movies are discussed.

Its well-structured, with broad categories of topics, an alphabetic index, a search box, links to related pages in Wikipedia and links to relevant external pages.  There are also occasional references to books for further reading.

Its big.  Youre far more likely to find content on a topic such as John Safran on Wikipedia than on Encarta.

Also, its growing.  The name of John Safrans new TV show wasnt on Wikipedia when we first looked, but was a week later.  Users can either add content themselves, or add a stub inviting others to add content on that topic.

It has some fun content, particularly regarding popular culture.  An article on penguins has a section Penguins in popular culture, which includes the Linux mascot Tux, and Feathers McGraw from Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers.

Its fast (compared to a trip to the library).  Unfortunately, it can be slow when compared to average Web access speeds.

Whats Wrong with Wikipedia
Theres no guarantee of accuracy.  While you hope that the person creating a topic knows what theyre talking about, there is no guarantee of this, or of errors being corrected.

Theres no guarantee of readability.  Articles are not always as well-written as they would be in a professionally-edited encyclopedia (although there are editors on Wikipedia who focus on copy editing issues).

Theres no guarantee of appropriateness and balance.  The content on Wikipedia reflects the interests of the people who contribute  this may not reflect the balance that individual readers require.

Theres no firm content.  As articles can change from day to day, there is no guarantee that content you have quoted is the content that someone else will find, although, if a date is added, the reader can track changes in the history section of the page.

How Does it Compare With the Alternatives?
The fact that anyone can contribute to Wikipedia is its great strength.  However, it is also its great weakness.  Can we trust something that could have been written by just anyone?

Wikipedia manages uncertainty in a number of ways.  Although it is democratic, it is not anarchic, and a large number of volunteer administrators keep an eye on sections of content to ensure consistent quality and to resolve problems.  Many receive an RSS feed of recent changes so are able to spot errors and vandalism immediately: .  Editors who do not have the time or knowledge to update pages that obviously need work can add a note saying: This article needs to be cleaned up to conform to a higher standard of quality, in order to alert readers to the problem.  In addition, many Wikipedia articles link to external Web sites, thus providing an authoritative backup for their content.  To deal with error and bias, Wikipedia also provides a talk page for each topic, in which people can discuss the content and express disagreement.

When comparing Wikipedia with other sources, it is important to remember that not all print publications are error free, and some have deliberate bias.  For instance, an early artist at Sydney Cove was commissioned to paint pictures that made Sydney look as appealing as possible to new migrants; also, war histories are known to have been written to promote certain points of view.  In addition, the alternative to Wikipedia is often not an authoritative print encyclopedia, but a Google search.

Even Wikipedia critics admit that they use it to get a quick gloss on a subject (e.g. Nicholas Carrs blog at  So, as a starting point, it is undeniably useful, for a popular approach to many topics its ideal, and for most topics it can form one useful step in the research process.

All Web sites were accessed on 6 November 2005.