Bright-er Side: At some point, Wikipedia became a partially-reliable website

The site doesn’t have to be treated like a pariah in academia

Wikipedia globe sitting on papers
We can cautiously poke it for answers. ILLUSTRATION: Lori Jiang / The Peak

By Bhavana Kaushik, SFU Student

We’ve all heard the warning: “Wikipedia can’t be trusted.” At every level elementary, middle, high, and university we’re warned to stay away from the free online encyclopedia. And so we’ve sadly been slow to learn that, at some point, the site became a partially reliable source. 

Wikipedia is the first click. Not just in terms of Google results, but as a stepping-off point for further research. When you’re curious about any issue (literally, any issue), using hyperlinks to travel through an endless web of curiosity is a fantastic way to spend your time. 

Better yet, the list of references at the bottom of any Wikipedia page. When statements on the site are backed up by academic journals or government documents, it lends credibility to the page on two fronts: first, it assures the reader there’s a good source of information for statements on the site; second, it makes the site useful by providing the reader with a virtual cornucopia of valid virtual sources through which they can search. This is the greatest value that Wikipedia has to offer: aggregating legitimate sources on any given topic under one wiki. 

Now, granted, “anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject,” so sometimes you’re going to get ridiculous stuff. If you, for example, trawl through the edit history on the “First Law of Thermodynamics” page, you’ll find a 2012 entry that changed the page’s first line to “the [first law of thermodynamics] is do not talk about thermodynamics.” And while I’m inclined to agree because of my hateful relationship with chemistry, the incident underscores the general success of edits to the site. The riff on Fight Club was fixed within a minute!

That’s not to say that the site is a perfect source. Contributors and editors have not prioritized pages about accomplishments by women. The same can be said of other underrepresented groups, including “people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, [and] Indigenous communities.” It just goes to show that while Wikipedia has made strides in legitimacy, it’s still fundamentally a place to start researching, but not the end. 

However, Wikipedia does offer more in-depth, readable, and widely accessible articles than Encyclopedia Britannica. We need to remain cautious, but we also need to stop utterly dismissing the site as a repository of information and sources. Don’t just take my word for it . . . take a look at the Wikipedia article on the reliability of Wikipedia!

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