Generations of homes housed a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica; neatly sitting on a bookshelf, “BRITTANICA” boldly printed on the spine, ready to be carefully taken down when a young member of the family was to write an essay about growing rice in Japan or the American Civil War. In 2012, Encyclopedia Britannica decided to stop printing its iconic volumes, available since 1760, and publish only an online edition – that this encyclopedia was not going to be available in book form any longer made the world sit up and take notice; the age of the online encyclopedia had arrived.
Online encyclopedias had been the choice for many a researcher before the demise of the print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica; Wikipedia established itself as a dominant provider of facts and data quickly after its made its Internet debut on January 18th of 2001: an astounding 2.7 billion Americans looked up something on Wikipedia in 2011. This article is concerned not with the popularity of Wikipedia but with it as an example of a seismic shift in how encyclopedias are being written online. Wikipedia is written by an estimated 100,000 contributors from all over the planet – not by a select group of highly educated experts. There has been a considerable furor over whether the Wikipedia user can trust the information she finds there – readers of the Encyclopedia Britannica knew that the information they were reading was vetted by experts. Wikipedia posts entries that are, basically, vetted by the public domain; the question is whether this intriguing model actually works? Is Wikipedia reliable?
Nature, a journal of science and nature of considerable renown, put Wikipedia through a test of sorts in 2005, comparing it to the aforementioned Encyclopedia Britannica with the goal of determining if it were more or less reliable – the results surprised many on academia, it was a virtual tie. Adam Brown, a political scientist at Brigham Young University, also put Wikipedia to a test; this time the focus was on information on candidates for gubernatorial office in America. Brown also found Wikipedia to be reliably accurate. This is not to say that Wikipedia has fully arrived as a source of information that is not disputed in academia.
An article in the Daily Sundial, on March 26th of 2012, focused on the student perspective, reported that only 17% of students surveyed thought that Wikipedia was acceptable as a source to be cited in an essay. Interestingly, even though this skepticism can be categorized as deep, 52% of the students categorized themselves as frequent users of the most popular source for information on the Internet.
Wikipedia has done what would have been unthinkable 40 years ago; invited everyone to write parts of a giant online encyclopedia that everyone on the planet, with Internet access, could read. That the website’s credibility has been held up through various tests thus far bodes well for its future, whether or not we start seeing it used in university essay citations soon remains a question unanswered.