Wikipedia is a free to use, web-based encyclopaedia. It is supported by the Wikimedia Foundation, and content is provided by a global network of contributors in multiple languages.
With over 5 million articles, more than 28 million registered users and over 16.5 billion page views as of April 2016 (Wikipedia, 2016) it contains a vast amount of content, and it is probably safe to say it is an extremely popular resource.
Something that makes Wikipedia so powerful is that it exists as the result of collaboration. In general, anyone can write a Wikipedia article on anything they like, meaning that we can access content that traditional encyclopaedia would be unlikely to publish because it is too obscure or niche.
Also, the fact that Wikipedia articles can be edited in real time means that content can be updated regularly, which again is something that cannot be achieved through traditional publishing.
These strengths also have the potential to be threats. While the fact that anybody can create a Wikipedia article is undoubtedly a significant benefit, it also means that it can be difficult to trust the content. Indeed, Wikipedia locks down content it considers particularly vulnerable to vandalism or misinformation. In theory, it would be feasible to amend a fact contained within a Wikipedia article in order to win an argument! Traditionally published material such as encyclopaedia, textbooks and journal articles are usually peer-reviewed, meaning the content is evaluated by an expert in that subject area before the material is published. The nature of Wikipedia means that this is not feasible – and would actually detract significantly from its value as a resource as a lot less would be published, and much less quickly!
The lack of peer-review does not mean we can’t rely on Wikipedia content to be accurate, we just need to be able to tell the difference between a good Wikipedia article and a bad one.
Wikipedia has its own style guide, and a team of administrators who evaluate new and updated content to check it conforms – and flag it up when it doesn’t.
One of the most important features of the style guide is referencing. A good Wikipedia article should provide sources for the facts and statements it contains. As with all published material, the presence of references means you can check the accuracy of the information in the article for yourself if you want to. Statements such as “Some people say” are not terribly useful unless we are told ‘who’, and can check this for ourselves. Equally, what appear to be facts (such as the Wikipedia statistics at the top of this page) should only be considered ‘facts’ if we know where they came from and can make a decision as to whether we believe them or not.
Given that Wikipedia is a resource for those who use the web, a lot of references in a Wikipedia article will lead you to other web resources. If you do check a Wikipedia reference and are taken to another website, you should also treat the information there with the same degree of caution. Ideally, a good Wikipedia article will give more than one reference for a key fact or statement.
Wikipedia is undoubtedly a fantastic resource. In order to get the most out of it, being able to evaluate Wikipedia articles is essential – particularly if we are to rely on the vast amount of information it provides us with.
Wikipedia (2016) Wikipedia: About. [Available online:[Accessed 21/04/2016]