Dr. Mark Humphrys

School of Computing. Dublin City University.

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"Why on earth would I link to you?" - Follow-up - In defence of Wikipedia

In defence of Wikipedia

When you write a web page about something, and want a link to further reading or background info, what do you link to?

We just mean a casual link, where someone can check some background information on a person or place or subject, without having to read a full article or book.

The obvious answer is Wikipedia. Now Wikipedia has major problems. So is linking to Wikipedia mad?

The big argument against Wikipedia is that it is user generated. Entries can be of poor quality, contain bias and prejudice, be factually wrong, or be simple vandalism written by trolls. Let us consider these issues:

  1. People who are trolls and vandals are usually discovered quickly and banned, and the page fixed. This has not been a huge problem in my experience.
  2. Poor quality entries are a problem, but this is a problem mainly with little-visited pages on obscure topics. The same problem exists with any web page on obscure topics.
  3. On controversial topics, many Wikipedia authors do have bias and prejudice, but the collective editing produces an interesting phenomenon where, after furious arguments, they cancel each other out. Many Wikipedia articles are remarkably even-handed as a result. In books and newspapers, the bias is simply printed, since there is no one biased on the other side to cancel it out.
  4. See The Wisdom of Polarized Crowds (2017 paper). Their study of Wikipedia articles concluded that polarized teams - those consisting of politically diverse editors - create articles of higher quality than politically homogeneous teams.

  5. But I agree with the concept that Wikipedia is not to be trusted by itself. You must cross-check all information, and find the actual source. View the Wikipedia link as a starting point for exploration, not a destination.
  6. Even where information on a topic is poor, Wikipedia can be useful for the external links sections which are often better quality, better maintained, and more up to date than other lists of links.
  7. Wikipedia is so up-to-date because so many people are always working on it. Whereas some other resources or lists of links may only get updated every few months or even years.
  8. Links are so simple in format:
    that: (1) you can actually guess them, and: (2) it looks like they will never need to be changed. The latter is really important, since many websites get regularly deleted or re-designed, and break incoming links.

Criticism of Wikipedia

The alternatives are worse

I link to Wikipedia not because it is perfect but because the alternatives are worse.

The whole Wikipedia debate points out that, even today, so many years after the start of the Web, there is still no perfect site to link to.

Alternatives to Wikipedia

Could you cite Wikipedia in a paper?

Answer: No.

Use Wikipedia as a starting point to find a real, stable, author-identified source that you can cite.

Wikipedia themselves say: "Normal academic usage of Wikipedia .. is for getting the general facts of a problem and to gather keywords, references and bibliographical pointers, but not as a source in itself."

"Professor Wikipedia" shows up many of Wikipedia's flaws.
(And yet everyone is at his class, and no one is at Professor Britannica's lectures.)
Warning: Some vulgarity.
(To be fair, modern Wikipedia is far better than the early site parodied in this 2008 video.)


Wikipedia vandalism gets into Google search


A classic example of Wikipedia's flaws:
Vandalism on 5 Aug 2014 of the entry for football's Nigel Clough.
It is a joke about something Sean Bean said.

Despite being reverted within 4 minutes the vandalism still made it into Google search results.
(Which by the way shows that not even linking to a Google search is safe!)

Michael Scott explains why Wikipedia is great.
(And yet I link to his Wikipedia entry. Argh! Please get me something better.)

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On the Internet since 1987.      New 250 G VPS server.

Note: Links on this site to user-generated content like Wikipedia are highlighted in red as possibly unreliable. My view is that such links are highly useful but flawed.