Hail to Wikipedia

I consult Wikipedia whenever beginning any new project.

Posted Jul 13, 2011

This idea [Wikipedia] ... it's not really about the software, it's about the people. It's about helping people find resolutions to problems and being supportive and loving and at the same time being firm with people who are trying to disrupt things. - Jimmy Wales, co-launcher of Wikipedia

 

When Wikipedia first came on the scene, about 2001, many of us in academics had at best a skeptical attitude toward the information presented therein. Some of us - including me - advised students that Wikipedia was not an appropriate source of information for papers or presentations.

Things have since changed, and Luddite though I may be, I now say hail to Wikipedia, this time publicly. Even when I was telling my students not to consult this collaborative encyclopedia freely available on the Internet, I was sneaking peeks myself. Lots of them.

What really changed my attitude was a book chapter I was asked to write about comic book superheroes from a positive psychology perspective (Peterson & Park, 2008). Other than boxes of comics stored in the garage of my parents, there were no other places I could turn for information about superheroes in the DC and Marvel stables, and Wikipedia proved invaluable.

I started to consult Wikipedia more and more regularly for biographical information about psychologists, celebrities, and historical figures - factoids I love to use to spice up my lectures and essays. Now I consult Wikipedia whenever beginning any new project, including the essays I write for this website.

I check elsewhere for anything that seems remotely off, but that is just sound scholarship and reflects not at all on Wikipedia. I think the information in Wikipedia is an outstanding starting point for getting a handle on almost any topic - there are, after all, some 19 million articles - and studies show that the accuracy of Wikipedia information is as high as any other secondary source, including the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica. Indeed, I have never been burned by using information from Wikipedia, although I do remember an entry some years ago that seemed to confuse me with a serial killer on death row in Kansas. But until that misinformation was corrected, I was at least treated with great and cautious respect by my students who thought I was in Ann Arbor on a work furlough.

Wikipedia is the ultimate example of a peer-reviewed publication, which those of us in academics purport to honor and take seriously. In the case of Wikipedia, the peers number in the millions, and they are those who care enough to contribute without pay. And unlike peer-reviewed journals of the print variety, Wikipedia is self-correcting. So, I only remained on death row for a few months, and I did not need DNA evidence or the ACLU to clear me.

 

I was inspired to write this entry when I came across a report this afternoon describing Michel Aaij, a faculty member at Auburn University Montgomery, who was awarded tenure in part for his heroic contributions to Wikipedia, including 60,000 edits. I am not sure whether the powers-that-be at his university credited him for good work construed as scholarship or good work construed as service, but regardless, I say good for him and good for them.

Many universities - and certainly my own - have become very focused on quantitative measures of a faculty member's contributions, whether enrollments in courses, student evaluations of courses,  grant dollars, number of publications, citation counts, or journal impact factors. Simply put, Wikipedia kicks tail in terms of publication impact, leaving Science, Nature, and The New England Journal of Medicine far behind. Wikipedia has in excess of 365,000,000 readers!

If you want to read more about Wikipedia, go there and type in Wikipedia. You will find a very thorough entry, and I bet it is accurate. It certainly is interesting.

Reference

Peterson, C., & Park, N. (2008). The positive psychology of superheroes. In R. Rosenberg & J. Canzoneri (Eds.), The psychology of superheroes: An unauthorized exploration (pp. 5-18). Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.

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