Can you trust the Wikipedia?

In the past week the perennial question of “Can you trust the Wikipedia?” arose while I was working on the tedious – though oddly compelling for an obsessive like myself – task of reviewing the early period of Wikipedia history. I slowly worked through the Wikipedia timeline ensuring each event was dated and sourced. I realize that if I’m ever to trust this timeline, I need more than a bald claim. And, my appreciation is so much greater when I can peruse the primary source. For some sources, such as the Nupedia list archives, I was able to find copies of messages on the Internet Archive. Another source, Jimbo’s explanation about Stallman’s proposal for a competing project, is seemingly lost forever. Fortunately, Stallman was kind enough to tell me of his recollection of the incident and allow me to publish it. Most frustratingly, I encountered a tantalizing mention of Internet encyclopedia proposals from the UN’s Millennium Project but failed to find any source or corroboration; that information is stricken from the article. Which brings me back to the question of trusting the Wikipedia. I have addressed the broader question of epistemological authority before, but now I want to focus on the role of sources.

Simply, Wikipedia is only as trustworthy as its links. Actual scholarly authority is similar. A critical part of scholarly training is learning why and how to cite (link to) others. Expert authority is also generated from experience in the field, and theoretical and methodological training. Yet, as I’ve noted many times “‘We can never know everything.’ We all can’t be experts on everything, so we often need to rely upon credible authority while remaining critical and skeptical, but never dismissive.” Consequently, the tokens “Ph.D.” and “professor” become proxies for an assessment of trust that very few people are able to substantively test, but, to which many are willing to defer. Because Wikipedia lacks such reputation mechanisms Wikipedia is, again, only as trustworthy as its links. For educational purposes, the implication of this is profound. Should we teach students to trust a claim because it was simply uttered by a credentialed person? Or, should we encourage them to click a link and teach them how to investigate for themselves?

The consequent of this for Wikipedia culture is that it doesn’t link enough. Perhaps my experience with Wikipedia history is exceptional since Wikipedians take the sources for granted. But, as I found, that’s a poor historical assumption. I also share the concern that articles might become overly busy or dense with citations. There is a tension here, but one I think the technology can handle. It’s why I believe the trustworthiness of Wikipedia is in part dependent upon the citation project and furthering a culture of “if you claim, you cite” as implied by the Verifiability policy.

Ported/Archived Responses

Bryan on 2005-11-29

Really, really, good point. We’re not educating our students unless we make them suspicious of all truth claims. If you think about Wikipedia as an experiment in public knowledge production, it’s as if everything that STS has been saying has been brought forward and made transparent – knowledge is contested, there’s a social process by which some ‘facts’ are accepted and others are rejected, and truth claims cannot  be evaluated unless the contestation and social selection is unpacked. Wikipedia makes this accessible; science tries to hide it.

Joseph Reagle on 2005-11-29

This topic was recently raised on a WP list where JimBo wrote “We strive to be (and sometimes, but not yet nearly as much as we’d like) Britannica or better quality. But even at that level of quality, frankly, it’s just not appropriate to cite any encyclopedia at the university level. That’s not the role of an encyclopedia in the process.” I actually disagreed:


I find this argument about usage in school settings to be (interestingly)
bogus and encouraging of plagiarism. Clearly, encyclopedias have a function
in the schools: encyclopedia = circle of learning – and paideia, is
something you do as a pais, a child (Fowler 1997:15). Even at the graduate
level IMHO. Pang (1998) – even before the WP – noted that this is was
EB’s big market. The Britannica CD had extremely strong sales in the home
market, and with public schools and libraries with limited Internet access.
Institutions were the largest subscriber to the Britannica online. And new
CD editions were typical released about now, at the start of the Christmas
season. It’s interesting EB markets itself to this community, claims
authority, but also plays this dance of acceding to not being cited.

In any case, some might say students should use Britannica, but not
Wikipedia; or cite one’s use of an encyclopedia, or not. I think students
should use what is most appropriate and cite it.

Not citing reference works serves the pretense of the academic and the
marketing of the masked authority of traditional reference work publishers.

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