Wikipedia – To Tell The Truth

Dick Davies attended The Hamilton Project at Brookings conference about education and the Wikipedia came up as a ‘problem’. I have talked with many teachers and they tend to poo-poo Wikipedia as a serious reference source – in fact, they prohibit the students from using it when doing projects.

I recall in school, before the internet, reading a synopsis in the Encyclopedia Britannica and not finding any of the cited references at the local libraries. With no opportunity to review source materials I was left to rely on the viewpoint of the writers.

The Britannica was limited by print space available for it’s content – its style was abstracts. The editors’ work was reviewed by a panel of editors for accuracy and unbiased writing (for those so inclined, metrics: 100 editors, 4,400 contributors, 65,000+ articles).

Wikipedia has a whole community to write articles, offer additional content, and challenge errors or misstatements, as well as an army of volunteer editors to improve the entries (metrics: 275 editors, 100,000 contributors, 23,000,000+ articles). Since the internet is virtually infinite, Wikipedia has not been hampered by the space limitations of print media – it has plenty of room for more lengthy articles and extensive hyperlink bibliographies to supplement the articles. Live links are available instantly from the computer

Before the internet, a significant research consideration was finding data; now with its vast content available, the consideration now is filtering to get relevant data. The Britannica filters the content as a result of the space considerations, whereas Wikipedia is inclusive and the content is filtered on relevancy by external tools.

The Google Search Box typically returns a Wikipedia cite among the top three or four results – a good first filter and introduction to the topic. The live links following the article cite additional sources of information and easily expand the depth of the research. Teachers instill in students that single-source research is not a reliable path to knowledge and these links make multiple sources easier to find since the material has already been filtered.

Structurally the Britannica approach may offer control and consistency, but is limited by available resources (i.e., staff). Wikipedia is an open-source collaborative venture of contributors creating content and a community devoted to making it better and collectively assuring acceptable results – much like ancient tribes did before cities and laws were established.

The Wikipedia project is a good example of how users can create, populate, and regulate a resource by collaboration and an evolving community of dedicated volunteers.

Are there other situations where a similar collaborative approach could produce results. How about an application in your organization?

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Andrew Krzmarzick

I’ve heard this response when speaking as well. Strange as this is an amazing resource…and suprisingly well-written and accurate.

Henry Brown

I too have heard this response, IMO the prime reason was the mindset “anything new is bound to be bad“, or “I didn’t invent it therefore it could not be trusted

My sister is a high school (freshman) english teacher and the first 3 days of her class is how to use wikipedia and properly reference it.

So some are grasping the power of Wikipedia, just going to take time!

Henry Brown

Interesting quote from FCWWhat do putting on a man on the moon, the Human Genome Project and Wikipedia have in common? They all are examples of solutions to grand challenges – ambitious but achievable goals that captured the public’s attention and were fueled by innovation. …

Jack Gates


Great comment – really brings into focus the power of collective activity and an inclusive approach.

Thanks for adding to the conversation.

Jack Gates


Change is undesirable – is this a generational thing?? – if it’s new it’s suspect – it’s brilliant IF I did it; it’s suspect if anyone else did. Popular knee-jerk reactions of some folks, unfortunately.

I love what you sister does with her class! How best to use Wikipedia as a tool, and practice to gain mastery.

I think an interesting exercise is for the students to stand up an Wikipedia page and experience the open source review and defending process and the evolution of deeper understanding of the topic. May not be for everyone, but a dandy project for some.

Thanks for the comment.

Jack Gates


In my discussions with educators, there seems to be more confidence in published standards – like the traditional encyclopedias use – and peer review with editing rights. The open source approach has the guidelines, but also has an empowered community which is diligent about monitoring content and challenging and/or revising inaccurate or malicious entries.

What I found in researching Wikipedia is there are several independent studies which have found the error rate for Wikipedia and for traditional encyclopedia (Britannica) are about equal.

Thank you for your comment.