Open Source Research — Wikipedia

This week is Open Source Week here at the institute. We’re celebrating all things open source. We’re taking a broad view of this term, which generally includes peer production, open collaboration, and free licensing.

Woah. Take it easy. I can hear the howls from the academy and well-educated among you: “Wikipedia is a pox on research! It leads the uninformed down the garden path!” And I empathize with you. But let’s set these objections on the shelf, and we’ll come back to them by the end of today’s post. Keep an open (might I say objective?) mind about this resource and come to it with a fresh look.

Wikipedia Basics

The Wikipedia Logo (source).

Wikipedia was started just over sixteen years ago by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger and has grown to have over five million articles in English and millions more in 250 other languages, making it the largest encyclopedia(-like) publication in history. It has been the subject of ridicule, debate, and derision, but it is in the top ten visited websites (since 2007) and the go-to reference for casual research (although some argue it has peaked in popularity and is now in decline; source).

Wikipedia is an open-source digital encyclopedia. This means that the content is generated, written, edited, and policed by a largely volunteer corps. While this has created a monument to the ability of people volunteering to work together, it also has seeded its criticisms.


Wikipedia categorizes criticism into six areas: accuracy, quality of writing, coverage of topics and systemic bias, explicit content, privacy, and sexism. They have a page devoted to self-critique.

A study done by Nature measured the inaccuracies of forty-two articles on Wikipedia and compared them to the same articles in the Encylopædia Britannica. It found that Wikipedia entries had four errors on average while the Britannica had three. This study has been critiqued as focusing on science articles and too few of them at that, but its findings are an encouraging first look. Most academics and professionals discourage the use of Wikipedia because of its open authorship, which is the opposite of peer review; instead they prefer to use primary sources. The founder of Wikipedia, Wales, is on record as agreeing with angry professors, telling students who fail by citing Wikipedia that they got what they deserved (source).

As a copyeditor, I can attest to the fact that the writing on Wikipedia is spotty. This comes from many authors working on a single page, and it leads to a lack of a consistent voice, even though Wikipedia has a style guide. Others call into question the length of articles on topics that would not appear in a printed encyclopedia, however it is pointed out that Wikipedia is not a paper publication, therefore the depth of articles on Star Wars does not take space away from an article on pancreatic cancer, for example. Explicit content can be found on Wikipedia, with images showing various body parts and other things that might otherwise be considered “not safe for work,” but they are shown on pages related to those topics and may be distasteful but not unexpected due to the focus of the article. Wikipedia has also been accused of publishing personal information (usually of individuals in the news) and like any online community, instances of sexism, trolling, and other bullying have cropped up, largely within the user forums.

The Institute’s Stance on Wikipedia

Growing up, I had an encyclopedia in my room. I pored over this resource on topics from sailboats and catapults to the Soviet Union and lasers. It resulted in my interest in experimentation and preindustrial technology. Many times I got into trouble by building something I found in the encyclopedia, from explosives to boats. Luckily my plan to build a hang glider never got off the ground. I can’t imagine what I would have done with access to a resource like Wikipedia.

Wikipedia has been derided in the academy, but studies suggests that its accuracy is on par with many peer-reviewed journals and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, as noted above. As an exercise, I used to make students fact check Wikipedia. In recent years, I have noticed that aside from a few less-than-ideal sources and poor writing, the information on Wikipedia is largely accurate and comes from trustworthy (usually peer-reviewed or refereed) sources.

We consider it acceptable to link to Wikipedia in our blog and Bulletin for the following reasons:

  1. Most readers will have easy access to Wikipedia but are unlikely to have access to a traditional encyclopedia or academic journals.
  2. The topics we cover and the depth at which we examine them do not usually require more information than is available on Wikipedia. After all, we’re going for simple and approachable.
  3. The crosslinking of Wikipedia entries encourages readers to explore topics more organically.

We do not accept Wikipedia links or citations in formal academic writing, including Journal articles, grant proposals, research reports, and other professional-level writing.

The background information for this post came entirely from Wikipedia and links from Wikipedia pages: Wikipedia, Criticism of Wikipedia, and Manual of Style.   This is circular research in some respects, but as seen above, the external sources were checked and cited. It is also a blog post upon which hinges neither life nor limb.

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