This guide, in the form of 11 questions and answers, helps clarify certain misconceptions about what has come to be one of the most popular and frequently used websites in the world. It also can can be found in its entirety on wikipedia.com. As it is created by Wikipedia–or some arrangement of its volunteer editors–it is undoubtedly biased, but equally informative.
Concepts such as open source, copyleft, collaborative writing, and volunteer contributions for the public good can be new and unfamiliar ideas to many students. Wikipedia offers an opportunity for educators to explore concepts of public trust that are likely to continue growing in prominence throughout the lives of today’s population of youth.
Some common questions that students and educators ask about Wikipedia are answered below based on the status of Wikipedia and on reasonable projections for its immediate future.
What does wiki mean?
The term “wiki” is derived from the word wikiwiki, which is the Hawaiian word for “quick”. A wiki is a web site which allows people to contribute content; see our article on wikis for more information about this.
Is Wikipedia accurate and reliable?
Wikipedia is rapidly developing, and its editors strive, over time, to increase its reliability as a source of information. Readers are encouraged to compare articles to what they already know from reliable sources and improve the articles’ accuracy and detail. Articles about many of the major sciences were developed from other free or public domain encyclopedias. This provides a reliable basis upon which Wikipedia’s editors could expand. Because of its growing utility, Wikipedia is cited almost daily in the press.
Wikipedia’s objective is to become a compendium of published knowledge about notable subjects. The reliability of Wikipedia articles is limited by the external sources on which they are supposed to rely, as well as by the ability of Wikipedia’s editors to understand those sources correctly and their willingness to use them properly. Therefore, articles may or may not be reliable, and readers should always use their own judgment. Students should never use information in Wikipedia (or any other online encyclopedia) for formal purposes (such as school essays) until they have verified and evaluated the information based on external sources. For this reason, Wikipedia, like any encyclopedia, is a great starting place for research but not always a great ending place.
It is possible for a given Wikipedia article to be biased, outdated, or factually incorrect. This is true of any resource. One should always double-check the accuracy of important facts, regardless of the source. In general, popular Wikipedia articles are more accurate than ones that receive little traffic, because they are read more often and therefore any errors are corrected in a more timely fashion. Wikipedia articles may also suffer from issues such as Western bias, but hopefully this will also improve with time. For more information, see Wikipedia:Criticisms.
What prevents someone from contributing false or misleading information?
Wikipedia’s content control mechanisms are reactive rather than preventive: anyone can go to almost any page and change the information to make it false or misleading. Although the majority of edits attempt to improve the encyclopedia, vandalism is frequent.
Fortunately, such deliberate errors tend not to linger. Hundreds of dedicated Wikipedia contributors monitor real-time edit feeds (particularly for important or controversial articles) and quickly revert most inappropriate edits. Many articles are on one or more editors’ personal watchlists (and major articles are watched by hundreds of editors), and this provides a second layer of content control. Third, Wikipedia’s huge user base is constantly analyzing and improving every article, undoing vandalism as it is found. If an anonymous or relatively new user changes a statistic or date by even a little bit, without justifying their edit, they are particularly likely to raise a red flag. If an individual continues to vandalize after being warned, then they may even be blocked from further editing.
The key to this reactive system is that Wikipedia, unlike mainstream print sources, keeps a full history of every change to every article. Nothing is ever lost, and no abuse is permanent. See Wikipedia:Edit history for more information.
All that being said, Wikipedia is not perfect. A reader may have the bad luck of arriving at a page just after it has been vandalized and before it has been repaired. There have been incidents in the past where vandalism has been discovered still in place months after the fact. At any given time, there is some inaccurate information somewhere in Wikipedia. It is for this reason that readers must be particularly diligent in verifying Wikipedia against its external sources, as discussed above. It is also a good idea, if you feel uncomfortable about an article, to check its history for recent “bad-faith” edits. If you find a piece of uncorrected vandalism, you might even decide to help future users by correcting it yourself. That’s a great feature of Wikipedia.
Can students cite Wikipedia in assignments?
It depends on what teachers accept. Just in case, you shouldn’t copy an article word for word. The best policy for all writing is to have more than one source. Wikipedia can be an excellent starting place for further research. Teachers might ask students what they did to validate the information they learned from Wikipedia. Using a comprehensive search engine such as Google or Yahoo!, students can easily compare Wikipedia content with information from other reputable websites. Most Wikipedia articles also contain an “External links” section at the bottom, which often leads to other relevant sites. Students can compare information in Wikipedia with information in other encyclopedias or books in the library. As a general rule, contributors to Wikipedia are encouraged to cite their sources, but, of course, not all do. For the sake of verifiability, it is advisable to cite an article that has listed its sources. Most of our better articles have sections such as “References,” “Sources,” “Notes,” “Further reading,” or “External links,” which generally contain such information.
For purposes of establishing authorship and finding more sources, students may also find the articles’ “View history” tabs useful, as these detail every contribution, the contributor and often a summary of what was contributed. All of our contributors have talk pages for leaving them messages. If you are logged in, a toolbox link (“E-mail this user”) is also visible beside the user pages of many registered contributors. Other means of contacting Wikipedians are listed at Wikipedia:Contact us.
Is it a safe environment for young people?
Wikipedia has similar safety issues to other equally open environments. Participation in Wikipedia requires children to know basic Internet safety practices. Children will be communicating and interacting with anonymous adults, and parent or teacher supervision is important, depending upon the age of the child, just as in any other online environment. No child should ever assume that if somebody has an account on Wikipedia, then they’re safe to meet in person, and the usual internet safety rules apply: do not give out personal information, do not arrange to meet someone you meet on Wikipedia, and report to a responsible adult at once if anyone is making you feel uncomfortable. In any case, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia project, not a social environment for making offline friends, and chat is generally discouraged.
Wikipedia has the advantage that most communication is done in an open, public, reviewable manner (even personal talk page messages are readable by anybody). Note, however, that in contrast to some sites directed towards youth, Wikipedia does not have staff to patrol discussion pages or remove inappropriate comments; it only has volunteer administrators, who will exclude people breaching civility rules, but who will not censor conversations if they deal with adult topics.
Wikipedia has a policy on child protection and will remove editors who are found/suspected of being dangerous towards children either online or in the real/offline world. However, children and their parents must understand that Wikipedia does not collect information about its editors (in the way that sites such as Facebook do), hence most editors are anonymous even if they have a user account.
Wikipedia is not bowdlerized or censored. It contains articles on subjects such as racial slurs, controversial political and religious issues and movements, and sexual acts, including images of nudity. However, the information about sexual topics will probably be more neutral and factually accurate than what young teens hear from their peers, and no more erotic than the material of North American or European sex education classes; that is, articles on these topics are kept to facts and are not meant to incite or titillate the reader. Articles, including those on human reproduction, may contain anatomical, graphic photographs of sexual organs, which certain cultures may find inappropriate for small children. However, Wikipedia can be configured to hide these images if desired. Note also that although it discusses the methodology of terrorism and violence, Wikipedia is not a how-to guide.
Pages which are normally appropriate for children to use are occasionally vandalized with rude words or content which may be offensive. Vandalism is normally noticed and removed within a few minutes—if not seconds—but it is still possible that a person may access a page before this is dealt with.
The 2008/9 Wikipedia Selection for Schools is a selection of 5,500 articles deemed suitable for school children and has been checked and edited for this audience and protected against editing or vandalism. It contains about the equivalent content to a 20 volume encyclopaedia organized around school curriculum subjects, and is available online and as a free download for use by schools. If you find something wrong there, you should go to the corresponding Wikipedia page to make the correction. The next edition of the Schools selection will then include your correction.
What is open-source media?
Open-source production relies on qualified users to maintain a constantly improving collection, whether it is an open collection of computer code or of encyclopedic information. Open source collections typically maintain back-up resources, so if a developer accidentally damages the code or the content, it can easily be reverted to an earlier, stable version. The same backup system provides protection against malicious damage to an open-source project.Open-source media is a kind of information produced by open groups of developers in which anybody who wants to can use the information. Open-source production emerged among software engineers with the production of Linux, a free software computer operating system. MediaWiki is an open source software package that supports an open source encyclopedia.
Why do people contribute to open-source projects?
Few surveys have developed reliable answers to why people contribute to open source works like Wikipedia. Some sort of public interest or community spirit is often part of the motive. Open-source projects offer an opportunity to contribute to something that has lasting value and that will continue to grow. Open-source publishing allows writers and software developers to apply their skills outside of a strictly business environment. Casual writers and editors sometimes participate as a hobby or as a learning experience. Classrooms may evaluate and post information as a learning activity. Volunteering is also one of the few ways writers and Web designers can gain experience and exposure without already having any.
Why have we not heard of this before?
Wikipedia was established in January 2001 and is now one of the most active websites in the world. Its rapid growth has been reported in many prominent media outlets. As the encyclopedia grows, more people learn about it every day. See Wikipedia:Press coverage.
Most people will encounter Wikipedia for the first time through a search engine. Many Google search queries, for instance, will return a Wikipedia article on the first results page. Others may see it referenced on other websites or in the media. Wikipedia does not advertise as many new services do, so public knowledge of Wikipedia is mostly a result of word of mouth, readers discovering the service while browsing online, or people learning about the encyclopedia from news reports.
Many other online encyclopedias simply copy (parts of) Wikipedia (these are called “mirror sites”), which is allowed because it uses a free content license. So you may have come across a Wikipedia article without knowing it. However, these other sites are often quite out of date, so it is usually better to use the Wikipedia article than the mirror site.
Beyond information from the encyclopedia, what can students learn from Wikipedia?
Most young people will likely at some point become involved in interactive online activities. For educators, young people’s involvement with Wikipedia provides an opportunity to survey their understanding of online safety, and to teach appropriate practices. Educators can use Wikipedia as a way of teaching students to develop hierarchies of credibility that are essential for navigating and conducting research on the Internet.
Wikipedia provides an opportunity for teachers to discuss the concept of the open content. Wikipedia is an opportunity to participate in an open community that relies primarily on mutual respect and cooperation, but which is not related to familiar authority figures some youths might tend to oppose.
Editing in Wikipedia is an opportunity to learn to participate in collective editorial processes. Wikipedia presents a ready opportunity for youths to research, compile and publish articles for peer review. For youths who contribute images, selection and production of an image provides opportunities to learn what a market wants from an artist. Youths who master skills for accurate writing and drawing about encyclopedic subjects are better equipped to develop their own style in more creative genres.
Because all articles in Wikipedia must conform to neutral point-of-view, students participating in collaborative editing activities on Wikipedia are building experience in detecting and eliminating bias in writing.
Can a school group set up its own wiki?
Yes. The MediaWiki software which powers Wikipedia is an open source software package, which means anyone who knows how to use it and who has access to a server computer may set up his or her own wiki project.
Access to a wiki database can be password protected, to allow groups to develop an open document within their membership. Passwords can allow a wiki to be developed by a school club, a teachers group, a regional group of schools, or any group within an educational community. Wikis might be used for school histories, to develop yearbook material or as class projects. A group can operate a wiki project online or within a closed local area network.
Where can I learn more about Wikipedia?