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Balk: Academia should find a place for Wikipedia

Tim Balk, Columnist

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I’ve been listening to teachers tell me not to use Wikipedia since fourth grade. Yesterday, looking at a slide that advised using podcasts and blogs for research but warned against the evils of Wikipedia, something inside me snapped. I have had enough.

Wikipedia is imperfect. Everybody knows about its flaws. Anyone can edit it anonymously. There are unquestionable factual inaccuracies. Not every Wikipedia page is amazing. High school teachers and college professors love to note these truisms to students as if they’re breaking new ground and imparting wisdom. In point of fact, they sound silly.

I’m here to defend Wikipedia, which has been unfairly cast off by much of an academic community that tends to focus more on the “wiki” than the “pedia.” The truth of the matter is there are few, if any, resources that represent better jumping off points for research. The website contains an unbelievable amount of information, is easily accessible and, more often than not, is sourced comprehensively. The page on the Vietnam War, for example, has more than 400 references. Wikipedia covers a far broader assembly of subjects than any encyclopedia you could find in a library. It covers those subjects in far greater depth than any print encyclopedia. Further, it is usually more up-to-date than any print encyclopedia. In short, the most popular encyclopedia on the web is better than any other competitor.

The very existence of Wikipedia has allowed humans to learn more, and more quickly, than would ever be possible prior to the digital age. When you want to find out who the 22nd president was, you open up Wikipedia (It’s Grover Cleveland; I just checked). When you want to find out what the tallest building in North America is, you open up Wikipedia. Why? Because Wikipedia combines expediency with an incredible accuracy rate.

When I stumble across factually incorrect information (and I say this as someone who spends copious amounts of time on Wikipedia), the errors are usually immaterial and minor. Additionally, these errors are usually on pages that probably should not even exist because they receive so little traffic. Try messing up President Obama’s Wikipedia page. I’m sure you can. Anyone can edit Wikipedia. But the error will be fixed in moments.

Wikipedia has an incredibly active community of folks all over the world constantly editing, adding to and fixing its pages. It’s not always perfect. But it’s pretty close.

To clarify, I am not advocating that research papers should suddenly be littered with citations of Wikipedia. If there is any question about a “fact” that you find on Wikipedia, it should be corroborated with other sources. But I would argue that is true of any fact from any website. There’s misinformation all over the web. You can find it on Wikipedia. You can find it in blogs. You can even find it on the websites of major newspapers. I’m not equating Wikipedia to The New York Times, but I am saying Wikipedia is an outstanding resource.

Wikipedia should never be where academic research ends. As a place to start, though, it is hard to top.

Tim Balk is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at timothybalk2018@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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