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How to make the internet a better place

| Wednesday, February 14, 2018

For as long as I’ve had to do school projects requiring some amount of research — since maybe third grade or so — there’s been one word that seems to strike as much fear into my teachers’ hearts as a four-letter curse word. It’s the “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” of academia: Wikipedia. But Wikipedia is not something to be avoided like the plague. In fact, it’s the most useful place to start your research.

First, some terminology. Wikipedia is just one example of a “wiki,” which is the generic term for a website that is edited collaboratively by many users. Wikipedia was started in 2001, and since then it has grown to tens of millions of encyclopedia articles across nearly 300 languages.

Teachers and professors have valid reasons for doubting the reliability of a website that can be edited by anyone, anywhere, without approval. You don’t even need to create an account to edit. But there’s a reason why Wikipedia is one of the top-visited sites in the world, not a pit of absurd, completely made-up information. There are many protective measures in place. A juvenile insertion of a vulgar remark about a disliked celebrity, for example, will be reverted instantly by a specialized computer program. Even a more clever vandal is vastly outnumbered by well-intentioned editors cleaning up and ensuring the accuracy of the encyclopedia. Even still, I realize that the chance of an inaccuracy is not one that’s worth taking when it comes to a major research paper.

But the goal of Wikipedia is not to be the only stop for your research. In fact, one of Wikipedia’s core policies is that everything in an article must be able to be verified by a reliable source. Furthermore, any fact that can be challenged has to be backed up by an inline citation. You may have seen those superscripted numbers in square brackets but never clicked on them.

There lies the true beauty of Wikipedia. Those citations take you to a reference to a book, news article, journal, etc., frequently online, where you can continue your research and independently verify what you read.

For many of Wikipedia’s articles, that page is arguably the most current, comprehensive treatment of that subject that is freely available anywhere online. And the reason why Wikipedia is widely distrusted is also the reason why it is so exhaustive and up-to-date. You don’t have to be an expert in the field or slog through a lengthy review process to add a fact or fix a mistake. The job of a Wikipedia editor is to synthesize the literature of many different experts, and it’s easier than you might think. I’ve been active on Wikipedia for over six years and written dozens of articles in my spare time. I learned how to be a better researcher and writer through this.

To be clear, I am by no means advocating for blind acceptance of everything you read on Wikipedia, and certainly not for plagiarizing the site. Take Wikipedia with a grain of salt, but don’t ignore it entirely. Be a critical reader, and use the references. If you find a mistake and fix it. Congratulations — you’ve just made the Internet a better place.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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