The real problem with Wikipedia

By Sam Graham

I confess: I tell students to use Wikipedia.

The reading that students are expected to do can be (rightfully) tough. They’re thrown in the deep end, often without the basic knowledge to make sense of the complex details they’re meant to master. Try reading Edward Said’s Orientalism without a foundation in the basic ideas – you won’t get far. It’s like trying to do a jigsaw without looking at the picture on the box; like trying to see the forest when you’re stuck among the trees.

And so, when I work with students who are having trouble finding basic information or who are confused about the main ideas of a topic, I tell them to have a peek at Wikipedia – as a starting point. It gives them a basic idea of their topic and, in courses without reading lists, articles’ references can be a good start in researching.

I am always cautious in recommending Wikipedia, though, for two reasons. First, I know how sceptical others – including most lecturers – are of its accuracy. Each time I tell students that it’s OK, I am afraid that someone’s going to call me out on it. Second, it is systematically biased.

I am not too concerned about Wikipedia’s accuracy. Study after study has found that Wikipedia is pretty much as reliable as any other comparable sources – sometimes more so, sometimes a bit less. (Yep, I’m going to link to Wikipedia itself to support this! [Link])

Then there’s the fact that respectable sources are often pretty questionable. There is apparently plenty of falsification and fabrication in science research (link). And if you ever check the citations of an academic paper, don’t be surprised to find there’s often little relation to the original source. It can be pretty shocking how sloppy a lot of published research is.

I am, however, concerned about Wikipedia’s bias. Registered editors are mostly male, 20-something years old, childless and from the USA (link 1, link 2)

The gender divide is especially obvious, and is nicely illustrated in this article in The Atlantic Wire  (link) . For registered editors, there are around 13 times as many men as women. This generally translates into more than 13 times as many edits by men than women. Even for the Feminism article (link), there were 10 edits by a registered male for every edit by a registered female (link). If you want to know more about Feminism in Egypt (link), you’re going to be schooled by US and Israeli men (link). The maker of this website (link), which graphs the differences in gender authorship of articles, found just one article with more female editors than male: cloth menstrual pads. (There are, admittedly, a few more if you hunt around.)

Check key subjects within your own field at this website (link). (Note that this website tallies the gender assigned to each edit, so individual editors might be counted more than once.)

So should they be using other summarising-sources instead? Textbooks and other encyclopaedias may be criticised because they show the perspective of one or a few contributors. Though this is different from the ‘averaged truth’ of Wikipedia, it nonetheless leaves the possibility of bias.

There is bias in academia, too, but at least the diversity is preserved in different sources. Different perspectives can be found in different places, even if one perspective is found in more places. In Wikipedia, though, one perspective dominates, editing the other ones out.

(This is the same for a lot of other social media, too. Articles that are much ‘liked’ on Facebook will be seen by more people. Articles and comments that users upvote on sites like Reddit are also more widely seen. Deserved or not, these upvotes legitimise these articles and comments. The marketplace of ideas often fails.)

So, does it matter? I think so. Will I keep recommending that students brief themselves on a subject through Wikipedia? Honestly, yes. Wikipedia’s just too valuable to ignore, even though this is a problem that is unlikely to change any time soon.

The only answer, I think, is to help students recognise bias and how to work their way through it.

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