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We Need the Wisdom of Wikipedia

Wikipedia shows collaboration is crucial for accuracy

We’ve all been there. You’re sitting in a class. Your professor wants you to write a paper on the different types of asexual reproduction of the Sanderia malayensis jellyfish or some other arcane drivel. Your first reaction is to hit up Wikipedia. Then comes the kicker. You can’t cite Wikipedia. You scowl and snarl under your breath.

Wikipedia deserves more credit than we give it. Turning a blind eye to Wikipedia as a reliable source is shortsighted and has implications beyond the realm of encyclopedias. Distrusting Wikipedia represents academia’s unwillingness to open the gates of collaborative truth-seeking.

Scientific papers, meanwhile, are far from perfect.

Contrary to what your professors may tell you, Wikipedia, as a source, is statistically just as accurate as published encyclopedias for most of its content. A 2005 study by the Nature research journal, “Internet encyclopaedias go head to head,” found errors in both encyclopedias, but among the entries tested, the difference in accuracy was small.

Wikipedia, in their signature self-aware style, has reported on their own reliability as well. Wikipedia does not guarantee validity, but it is an invaluable research resource.

Inaccurate information on Wikipedia is usually corrected quickly. Hyperlinked citations back up nearly every claim made on an entry. The Sanderia malayensis jellyfish’s page hosts six sources from international professionals, biologists and a handbook on poisonous jellies.

Scientific papers, meanwhile, are far from perfect. Soft sciences have suggested cures to unhappiness or boosts to confidence through simple behavioral change, but as other researchers try to replicate the experiments, their conclusions are significantly different. This indicates a serious error in the scientific method. If science isn’t replicable, science is null.

In the last few years, a plethora of papers have fallen under criticism after researchers have failed to reproduce their results—it’s been called the replication crisis. The crisis may have a few sources.

Mistakes happen on Wikipedia too and it is always essential to be critical of anything read.

First, it’s not hard to get published. The University of World News said in 2018 that too much scientific research is being published. It estimated nearly 30,000 scientific journals are in circulation, publishing approximately two million articles each year. They said the volume burdens the peer review system and makes it dysfunctional.

Second, the media likes to be the first to report on news, including science news. Journalists can be wrong and often are when it comes to reporting on science, especially when they’re grasping to be the first to report on new findings. These bad practices report inaccurate, unconfirmed, flawed science to their audience before the study can be replicated.

Mistakes happen on Wikipedia too and it is always essential to be critical of anything read. Search around, find supporting articles for any claim made and be aware that there may be flaws. But be able to recognize valid and sound knowledge.

Critical review by the editors of Wikipedia—who can be any person—is what makes Wikipedia so powerful and so accurate. It’s the world’s largest encyclopedia—about 50 times larger than Britannica—with over six million entries and over 200,000 contributors. Wikipedia should serve as a banner for collaboration—especially between diverse groups.

In “The wisdom of polarized crowds,” a 2019 study from Nature Human Behavior, researchers found politically-diverse teams created more accurate entries than teams with less political diversity.

Wikipedia comes in clutch, often. Using it as a source may be frowned upon by professors, but a short chat with most of them and they’ll say Wikipedia is an excellent place to start. The website is a tool, not a cheat code. It would be ignorant to ignore it, but if it’s used appropriately, maybe, just maybe, we could learn something about jellyfish.

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