I have cited Wikipedia in many of my posts, and I’ve done it with no shame. Not everyone has shared my enthusiasm, though. Many people have used Wikipedia as an example of what is wrong with getting your information from the internet. They have disparaged its reliability, saying that anyone can contribute to it, so it can’t be a trusted authority. School teachers and college professors have even been known to ban and/or penalize its use, threatening to lower grades of offenders.
Teachers in middle school, high school and college drill it in to their students: Wikipedia is not a citable source. Anyone can edit Wikipedia, and articles can change from day to day — sometimes by as little as a comma, other times being completely rewritten overnight. “[Wikipedia] has a reputation for being untrustworthy,” says Thomas Shafee, a biochemist at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.
I remember trying to tell some of those people that they were being too negative about Wikipedia. That its accuracy rivaled that of traditional encyclopedias. Typically, I was rebuffed, sometimes angrily. Not even comparisons to the democratizing effect of the printing press could bring them around. I gave up trying to convince them, but I never gave up using Wikipedia. Now it looks as if those of us who support it will be vindicated.
With hundreds of thousands of scientific entries, Wikipedia offers a quick reference for the molecular formula of Zoloft, who the inventor of the 3-D printer is and the fact that the theory of plate tectonics is only about 100 years old. The website is a gold mine for science fans, science bloggers and scientists alike.
But even though scientists use Wikipedia, they don’t tend to admit it.
… the site’s unreliable reputation may be unwarranted. Wikipedia is not any less consistent than Encyclopedia Britannica, a 2005 Nature study showed (a conclusion that the encyclopedia itself vehemently objected to). Citing it as a source, however, is still a bridge too far.
Academic science may not respect Wikipedia, but Wikipedia certainly loves science. Of the roughly 5.5 million articles, half a million to a million of them touch on scientific topics. And constant additions from hundreds of thousands of editors mean that entries can be very up to date on the latest scientific literature.
The linked article describes studies that explore the influence science has on Wikipedia, and the influence Wikipedia has on science in return. There appear to be very good reasons why scientists and scholars and educators should try to get over their prejudice against the online encyclopedia.
It’s a good reason for scientists get in and edit entries within their expertise, Thompson notes. “This is a big resource for science and I think we need to recognize that,” Thompson says. “There’s value in making sure the science on Wikipedia is as good and complete as possible.” Good scientific entries might not just settle arguments. They might also help science advance. After all, scientists are watching, even if they won’t admit it.