Getting Familiar with Wikipedia: Scientific Value or Just Warm Words?

How to use Wikipedia?

Nowadays everyone knows Wikipedia (WP). It is the reference point for gathering quick information about almost any topic we can imagine. Wikipedia provides information about topics from A to Z to its users, no matter if scientific or about an everyday life topic. Almost every topic that is considered relevant for public interest is covered by a WP article. When looking up a certain topic on Google, the first information you get is most often from Wikipedia. Therefore, it may be claimed that Wikipedia offers the biggest pooled collection of information that is available in today’s world. However, despite the fact that there is no broader collection of knowledge than Wikipedia, we apparently perceive limits of relevance. For everyday use, WP may be the best device of finding the information we search. But does this hold true for scientific research as well? Can the information provided on WP be in fact a reliable source for academic purposes?
In a seminar at the University of Stuttgart we aimed to go a little bit further into this question. Therefore, we first discussed the most important WP principles and learned something about how WP actually works. Subsequently, it was our turn to start working on an article, or even create a new one and hence do our bit to the conceivably biggest provider of information there is.

How to find an article to work on?

However, finding a topic for a new article appeared to be quite difficult. As mentioned above, WP’s collection of information is already unbelievably big, especially concerning scientific topics. Public interest, on the other hand is a very important factor concerning the relevance of an article. WP administrators, who check new articles and edits for relevance and correctness, have the power to decide over deletion or maintenance of articles or edits. Therefore, the dilemma for someone who has the task to write a new article is that most articles about relevant topics already seem to exist.

However, during the period of the seminar at the university I completed an internship at the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Zentrum (James-F.-Byrnes Institute) in Stuttgart, which is also represented in an article on both, the German and the English WP site. Since both articles lacked up-to-dateness and moreover were not elaborated, I decided to gather further information and complete the missing information in both articles. Furthermore, I completed the German WP article about the American Days, an American cultural festival in the Stuttgart Metropolitan Region that is organized by the DAZ.

Changes and Approval

My first step was to check which information was missing in the articles or needed an update. This was mainly the structure of the DAZ and its program, which I further elaborated. Furthermore, I added a summary of the last three American Days, which had not existed before. Since my edits of the WP articles relied on authentic information and were evaluated by the staff of the DAZ I had not expected any editing or deletion by WP administrators, which ultimately appeared to be a correct assumption. The only thing that has been changed by an admin was the deletion of an academic title I added when mentioning the chairman of the institute. The reason for this was that academic titles are not provided on WP in order to avoid so-called “redlinks”. The rest of the information I added or edited was sighted and approved shortly after editing.

Final thoughts: Scientificity of Wikipedia

The question whether WP can or even should be used and provided as a source in scientific research remains hard to answer. Our seminar and own experiences with the encyclopedia have lead to controversial thoughts. The fact that everyone can contribute to the information provided by the website, no matter if expert, academic, or ordinary person, may lead to a sufferance of reliability concerning scientificity. Besides, the fact that edits are checked by people who are no experts in the field as well, may enable wrong information to be approved and therefore be published as a misleading source. In order to warrant scientific reliability of sources, millions of experts who had to check new information and edits, would be necessary. Therefore, even though new information is not published without being checked for relevance and correctness, its reliability remains questionable.
This leads to the conclusion that I personally would suggest to use WP rather as a reference to get a quick overview over an unknown topic, than as a reliable source for scientific research.

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