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Open source history, Wikipedia, and Encyclopedia Britannica

It’s the end of an era.

The print version of Encyclopedia Britannica is no longer. And just when I was getting psyched up to pay $1,395 for the 32 volume set.

It’s not really a surprise, is it? Owning a four figure set of books that are out-of-date as soon as you crack them open in the age of instant information just doesn’t make sense.

But the question many still have is

Can we trust instant, online information?

What people are really asking is

Can we trust Wikipedia? Should we let our students use it for historical research?

The simple answer?


For all you social studies teachers out there who aren’t letting your students use Wikipedia as one of their research tools . . . I’ll try and say this as gently as possible

For general research and gathering of foundational knowledge, Wikipedia is as good or better than other forms of encyclopedias. So it’s gonna be okay. Turn the kids loose.

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia with thousands of contributors, hundreds of paid editors, almost four million articles, automatic daily deletions of textual additions by anyone without a verified account, multiple languages, on-going fact checking, and live updates of current events. With such as a tool, one might expect problems,  mistakes, and inaccuracies.

But the interesting thing is that it seems as if Wikipedia’s problems with accuracy aren’t any bigger than more traditional tools.  More and more research is being done on the reliability of Wikipedia information:

And, of course, Wikipedia has its own article on the Reliability of Wikipedia. (Feel free to discuss that irony in the comments.)

In 2004, IBM researchers suggested that one strength of Wikipedia is that “vandalism is usually repaired extremely quickly — so quickly that most users will never see its effects” and that it had “surprisingly effective self-healing capabilities.”

Need some history research on the use of Wikipedia?

In June 2006, Roy Rosenzweig, a professor who specialized in American history and was the founding director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, published a comparison of the Wikipedia biographies of 25 Americans to the corresponding biographies found on Encarta and American National Biography Online. He wrote that Wikipedia

is surprisingly accurate in reporting names, dates, and events in U.S. history.

In the 25 biographies I read closely, I found clear-cut factual errors in only four. Most were small and inconsequential.

Rosenzwig continues:

To find four entries with errors in 25 biographies may seem a source for concern, but in fact it is exceptionally difficult to get every fact correct in reference works. “People don’t realize how hard it is to nail the simplest things,” noted Lars Mahinske, a senior researcher for Britannica. I checked 10 Encarta biographies for figures that also appear in Wikipedia, and in the commercial product I found at least three biographies with factual mistakes. Even the carefully edited American National Biography Online, whose biographies are written by experts, contains at least one factual error in the 25 entries I examined closely.

He did make the same observation that other research has made – Wikipedia is as accurate as other sources but perhaps not as well written:

If the unpaid amateurs at Wikipedia have managed to outstrip an expensively produced reference work such as Encarta and provide a surprisingly comprehensive and largely accurate portrait of major and minor figures in U.S. history, professional historians need not fear that Wikipedians will quickly put them out of business. Good historical writing requires not just factual accuracy but also a command of the scholarly literature, persuasive analysis and interpretations, and clear and engaging prose.

Our job has changed from what it was when I started teaching way back in 1987. Our job in the 21st century is not to deliver foundational knowledge.

Training kids to think critically, to persuade effectively, and to communicate well. That’s what we need to be doing. Grant Wiggins asks us

So, suppose knowledge is not the goal of education. Rather, suppose today’s content knowledge is an offshoot of successful ongoing learning in a changing world – in which ‘learning’ means ‘learning to perform in the world.’

So what’s the point of all of this?

Wikipedia is not perfect. No encyclopedia is. It is as “perfect” as any other basic research tool.

But you and your students should be using Wikipedia because of its cost, its anywhere/anytime access, its ease of use, its ability to update quickly, and because it offers rich citations and references to other print and online material.

Should students cite Wikipedia in their bibliographies? Probably not. Same with  the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedias aren’t designed to be primary or even secondary sources. They list basic, foundational knowledge and are best used as a starting point for research, rather than an end.

Nothing more, nothing less.

So go ahead and let your kids loose on Wikipedia. It’s gonna be okay. The end of one era means the start of another.

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