Screen Shot 2012-11-28 at 8.41.42 PMInevitably, every year, I end up having the same conversation. Sometimes with more than one student.

We’re working on some kind of activity that requires kids to search for information, and they don’t know where to go. I suggest they start with Wikipedia. “But my old teacher said you can’t use Wikipedia! Anybody can go on there and change stuff!”

I wish I knew who these mysterious teachers are. Wikipedia is an excellent source for information, and it is often a perfect starting point for researching a topic. While you should be critical as you read, this is no different from any other source you read – online or in a text.

For those of you who might doubt this fact, here are a few things to consider…

Everyone Can Edit. And Editors Push Back. The biggest argument against Wikipedia is that “anyone can edit it.” But these edits don’t occur in a vacuum. People who care about certain topics watch those pages, and and when an edit happens they receive a e-mail notification. If someone vandalizes a page by writing some blatant non-sense, it can easily be undone. If someone writes something questionable, other people mark that it needs a citation.

On the Wikipedia page for Nicolaus Copernicus, for example, someone made the seemingly innocent edit to label Copernicus with “Nationality: Polish subject.” This is apparently against convention, since there’s some dispute over whether he’s Polish or German. There are over 600 people watching the Copernicus page, within 12 hours someone undid this change.

Articles Become Better Over Time. One of the cool things about Wikipedia is that it saves every edit, and you can see every revision of an article. Looking at the same article on Copernicus, for example, it started out as a short blurb of a few paragraphs in 2001. By early 2002, it had undergone some major revisions and grown to a few pages, with several subsections. By late 2002, it was quite a lengthy article, and it has continued to go through hundreds of small revisions up until today. The current article is about 20 pages long, includes 116 footnotes, and also offers two to three pages worth of additional readings.

It’s Community Based. Not Necessarily Anonymous. Many pages on Wikipedia now have a form of protection on them, restricting who can edit them. Pages that are likely to be vandalized are restricted, and only certain people can edit them. Some pages, like Copernicus, are semi-protected. This means that people can only edit it if they have logged in. Any edits a user makes are then associated with his or her account, and people who do nothing but vandalize articles get banned. This accountability cuts down on vandalism.

Real Books Have Errors, Too. The idea that we shouldn’t consult Wikipedia because it might have errors is silly. We consult other websites, and they’re prone to have errors as well. Real books have errors, too. Read James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me if you don’t think that’s true. The great thing about Wikipedia is that these errors can be quickly identified and easily fixed. Traditional websites lack the editing power of a large community, and books can’t be easily revised the way that a Wiki can be.

Anyone Can Write Anything On the Internet. I’d be much more afraid of other online sources than Wikipedia. I could start a website and write just about anything. I could present a compelling case that the Republican party is controlled by Martians who are hell bent on destroying the Earth. If I wrote that on Wikipedia, it’d be gone within a few hours. If I wrote it on my own website, it would sit there, looking authoritative and real for all eternity.

The Bottom Line

I don’t mean to suggest that Wikipedia is perfect. It’s not. Sure, you’ll find some errors from time to time. You might even find the rare piece of vandalism.

But Wikipedia is set up in such a way that the vandalism is minimized and the errors are caught by editors and fixed. The perception of Wikipedia as a wild west where people anonymously edit and vandalize articles with reckless abandon is, well, just plain wrong.

Most Wikipedia articles are thoroughly sourced, and you can verify where the contributor got his or her information from. Moreover, they provide a thorough introduction to a topic.

What you should be teaching your kids is to critically read a source. Don’t blindly believe everything you read on Wikipedia – or another website, or in your textbook. If you can’t find a second source to back it up, you should probably question the veracity of the claim.