Using Wikipedia for Research

I come across this issue quite frequently: people that rely on Wikipedia as a reliable source of information for topics great and small. I typically have to restrain myself from getting too worked up when talking about this, particularly when it’s a fellow student or colleague; I am more understanding when it’s the general public simply because they don’t have the training in research methods that doctoral students do, and don’t have access to the litany of resources that we do. When I am talking to a fellow grad student, though, and they reveal they’ve used Wikipedia to look up information (e.g., on a disorder) I tend to get a bit hot.

The idea that you should only use reliable primary sources, such as articles from peer-reviewed journals, was taught right away in my grad program. In my mind, this is not only reasonable, it’s a given. While Wikipedia is great as a starting point for more pedestrian research, that’s about the extent of its utility. Why is this so? Well, it’s because anyone can change many articles on the site at will. There are articles that have a higher degree of protection to them, and this is a step in the right direction to safeguarding content. This does not keep the information secure though, because even if I have Wikipedia’s permission to access these articles it doesn’t mean my changes are accurate. The site has a host of individuals (almost all of whom voluntarily participate without recompense) that police the recent changes to articles, as well as new articles, for accuracy and appropriateness. This is another good step towards content reliability, however, even it is imperfect for a couple of reasons.

The reason that stands out in my mind comes from a personal experience I had three or four years ago when I created a page for a particular neuropsychological test. The page was brief but fairly complete, and I had included three primary source references for the page. This was an area I was fairly knowledgeable in, and one that I eventually wrote a dissertation on. A dissertation that I defended quite successfully, by the way. Yet, the article was deleted by one of Wikipedia’s “editors”. In his email to me, he stated that his rationale was that my sources weren’t reliable. I calmly wrote him and explained that, no, in fact they were reliable. Moreover, two of the three references I included were written by the test’s author; they had come from the proverbial horse’s mouth. Yet, this editor, whose primary interest per his Wikipedia profile was collecting barn stars, determined that my sources were bunk, and that the page I created was doomed to enjoy a Mayfly-like lifespan.

I’m not saying that people who collect barn stars aren’t capable of sound, critical evaluation of scientific literature. I am also not saying that all Wikipedia editors are this stupid (there, I said it), but this particular person clearly couldn’t tell a primary reference source from a Peanuts comic strip. There’s something wrong when I can go toe-to-toe with trained scientists and successfully defend my dissertation, but can’t convince this douche bag to not delete my page1. While this might sound like a spite-ridden attack against an individual, it’s not. My point is that people can post inaccurate information that can get by Wikipedia’s patrols, and that these same people are as fallible as you and I, and my actually prevent accurate information from getting out.

Caveat Emptor, people.

  1. I was only ever polite to this guy, much as I wanted to tear him a new asshole for his ignorance. Upon finding out that he was from my hometown (per his Wikipedia profile), I even tried some levity with the plea “How about give a fellow Charlestonian a break?”, to which he coldly replied “I don’t see what being from Charleston has to do with this.” Dick.  ↩

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