Tuesday, March 08, 2011

A Quick Lesson on Using Wikipedia for Research

I saw this on Failbook. This person was watching the Oscars red carpet coverage last Sunday and noticed Russell Brand with his mother. S/he then edited Brand's Wikipedia page, changing his mother's name from Barbara to Juliet. The following day several media outlets duplicated the intentional error, running pictures with captions referring to "Russell and Juliet Brand." Apparently, there were plenty of entertainment photographers, writers, and editors who were willing to trust Wikipedia without doing any additional research or fact-checking.

Nicely done, anonymous Wikipedia editor.

As much as I love living in a world where someone who is bored on a Sunday night can mess with unsuspecting entertainment reporters without leaving the comfort of his or her couch, I hate that this practical joke fuels negative stereotypes about Wikipedia—that it is unreliable and a tool of the lazy. I believe (in all sincerity) that Wikipedia is one of humankind's greatest achievements and feel that it is unfairly maligned because so many people fail to use it properly. So here are some rules and pointers for responsible Wikipedia use:

  • There are plenty of occasions for which a quick trip to Wikipedia is sufficient. If you need some quick information on the economy of Equatorial Guinea, a list of iCarly episodes, or a summary of the Revolutions of 1848 for a post on a personal blog (such as this one) or to satisfy your curiosity, Wikipedia should be fine. Most of the free encyclopedia's information is sound and accurate, and most of the bad articles are obviously bad and/or have been flagged by other users. For discerning readers, the chances of passing on bad information from a Wikipedia article are slim. The risk of messing up the name of a comedian's mother shouldn't scare you away from drawing on the Internet's greatest repository of information.

  • Still, anyone can write or edit Wikipedia. And while Wikimedia devotees do an incredible job policing the site, there's always the potential that dubious information will contaminate any of Wikipedia's 3,578,882 English-language articles. Thus citing Wikipedia is not sufficient for any writer who is being paid for his or her services or for any website or publication that considers itself a reliable source of information. But that doesn't mean you can't use Wikipedia for serious research. Wiki writers and editors tend to be very good about citing their sources. Wikipedia articles are a great starting point: not only do they organize and summarize key information about their subject, but they also provide numerous links to more reputable sources.

    You can take Wikipedia at its word that NASA initially referred to Eris as "the tenth planet," or you could follow the footnote to this press release from NASA's Jet Propulsion Labratoory. Wikipedia will tell you that Evansville, Indiana hosted college football's Refrigerator Bowl in the 1940s, but it will also direct you to this newspaper clipping from the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The Russell Brand entry actually links to this article, which confirms that Brand's mother's name is Barbara, not Juliet. Despite Wikipedia's shortcomings as a source in its own right, it is an excellent tool for finding relevant articles, books, press releases, etc. (And it is a much better tool than the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature.)

  • Finally, because anyone can edit Wikipedia, users have a responsibility to correct mistakes when they find them. If you come across a spelling or grammar error, fix it. If you notice that an article doesn't cite any sources, flag it. If an entry contains disputed information, voice your concerns on the talk page. Wikipedia is at its best when all users are invested in the quality and accuracy of its articles.

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