I’ve been following with great interest the discussion by Crikey readers about the suitability of Wikipedia
as a source. I use it all the time; sure, it has to be used with care,
but so does any source. There’s simply no such thing as 100%
reliability; a source is only as good as the person interpreting it.

I
would never use Wikipedia as my sole source for important facts, but
most research isn’t like that anyway: you’re looking for a starting
point, or corroboration of things you already know or half-remember, or
a simple explanation you can refer readers to for things that otherwise
would have to come from a bunch of different sources. For something
like Crikey, which depends so much on hyperlinks, Wikipedia can come in
very handy: Britannica or Encarta may be more trustworthy, but they’re
not as up-to-date or as comprehensive, and we can’t link directly to
them.

A good example is the story I wrote a week ago on the UK Conservative Party leadership contest, where I linked to Wikipedia’s article
to explain the process. I already knew the key facts from other
sources, and certainly knew enough to spot deliberate vandalism, but I
thought readers would appreciate having the information all in one
place.

Another example was these constituency-level maps
that I referred readers to for the Japanese election. I don’t know for
certain that they’re right, but realistically, who’s going to bother
uploading a set of fake Japanese electoral maps? It’s no more likely
than that the editors of Britannica will go off on a wild frolic of
their own.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Wikipedia works as
well as it does. Most social activity happens by voluntary
co-operation: if we had to rely on hierarchical authority all the time,
we wouldn’t survive past lunchtime. People who have an interest in
things working properly vastly outnumber those who want to screw them
up.

For those who haven’t used it, I would strongly recommend
having a browse through Wikipedia and getting your own sense of what it
can do. If nothing else, the experience of being able to correct typos
when you find them is extraordinarily liberating.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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