Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Wikipedia, a Surprisingly Reliable Science Resource

At first, an active encyclopedia written by and large on a volunteer basis sounds like an ill-conceived plan.  Considering that so much content on the internet is incorrect, the Wikipedia experiment was bound to fail.  But then, something strange happened: it actually worked.

The internet community, which can always be counted on for lewd YouTube comments dripping of ignorance and disrespect, somehow came together to compile a mass of information that is almost always factual (obviously, different parts of the community are at play here).  Yes, some donor money goes to pay tens of employees to overlook things, and do some fact-checking, but Wikipedia remains a database composed by tens of thousands of anonymous members of our global village, and is perhaps one of the best things to come out of the internet age.

Written mostly by amateurs, who have free time to spare, the volume of information grows at a staggering rate: thousands of pages per hour.  This kind of productivity at no cost, but reasonable quality, helps to explain why Wikipedia has flourished and the Encyclopedia Britannica has become all but irrelevant; oh, and did I mention it's free?

But here is the million-dollar question: "Do I encourage my science students to use Wikipedia?"

Well, yes and no.

I try to make a point to discuss Wikipedia with all of my classes, but it really comes to the forefront when research projects are concerned.

Wikipedia is perhaps the best brainstorming tool.  When choosing a topic and considering its many aspects, this resource is without rival due to its speed and accessibility.  One can peruse the A-Z of nearly any science topic in minutes - it is particularly good for introductory science.

However, when it comes to actual research, I insist that information be gathered from the primary source, which in the case of science, is a peer-reviewed journal or book.  Wikipedia can even help lead students to these sources, but should never, itself, be cited as a reference.  Wikipedia is a super handy guide; it offers direction and general content, but for specifics, one must consult a primary source.

Unfortunately, peer-reviewed journals are usually not free.  However, students and professors can usually access them through the library at their institution.

Where Wikipedia succeeds best is for access to information in a non-academic setting.  If you want a general idea about anything, it is excellent.  I am satisfied with 99% of my visits - a success rate that is tough to beat.

I suppose Wikipedia is like many other technological tools: very useful when used wisely.  I can imagine a social science professor cringing at my overall appraisal of Wikipedia, but the tool is at its best when it describes topics devoid of opinion and interpretation.  Wikipedia is thus better suited for the natural sciences than the social sciences.

There is also something elegant about an encyclopedia that gradually refines itself, like any system in nature that converges.  All of the millions of pages on Wikipedia are rated in terms of their quality, with the goal of each one reaching a high caliber.   

So three cheers for Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that should have failed, but did not. 

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