Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Wikipedia’s inaccuracies harm more than grades

Wikipedia’s inaccuracies harm more than grades
By Stephanie Silvas
Star columnist

Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, may be a convenient tool in researching, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s accurate.

The popular Web site recently claimed actor and comedian David Adkins, widely known as Sinbad, was dead, according to The Associated Press.

AP reported rumors of the actor’s death began circulating March 10 after a posting was made on Wikipedia, declaring Adkins died after suffering a heart attack.

Wikipedia is the self-proclaimed “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” But its critics say such autonomy leaves too much room for mistakes. And those mistakes can remain posted for as little as a few hours or up to several months.

The Web site allows for such inaccuracies. To edit an entry is easy and does not require a membership. Memberships only require a username, password and e-mail address. The lack in security creates a probability that the information is flawed or at least compiled by an amateur.

An anonymous Wikipedia contributor, who went by the screen name Essjay and has edited about 16,000 entries, claimed to be a tenured professor at a private university, according to ABC News. However, ABC News reported Essjay is actually a 24-year-old college dropout.

Researchers on the Web site not only risk the chance of receiving information that is not from a reliable source, but they run the risk editors may not correct the misinformation on the Web site before it is accessed.

This is a risk students cannot afford.

Many students, including me, have fallen victim to the ease of Wikipedia as a resource. Often, it is a naïve mistake.
“I get an e-mail every week from some college student who says, ‘Help me; I cited you and I got an F on my paper,’” said Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

To prevent such situations, universities and colleges nationwide have banned the use of Wikipedia as a citation in research. The history department at Middlebury College in Vermont banned citing Wikipedia after many students answered an exam question wrong, according to The New York Times. A Middlebury professor credits the wrong answers to an incorrect submission on Wikipedia, The Times reported.

Even Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger has lost faith in the Web site, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported. Sanger created an alternative to Wikipedia,, which claims to maintain higher standards for submitting encyclopedia entries. Wikipedia could be a good resource tool, but the process for editing entries is untrustworthy.

In an attempt to solicit funds to keep the site running, Wikipedia states their “efforts are supported through the generosity of people like you, who believe that knowledge means power and that knowledge should be free.”

That may work if the knowledge people were obtaining from the Web site was supported by fact and submitted by professionals.

In the Web site’s defense, most of Wikipedia’s information holds some truth, but the possibility of the research being inaccurate is not worth the risk.

Wikipedia may be a good place to start research, but alternative Web sites and other materials, such as peer-reviewed journals that are proven to be legitimate, should be used first and foremost.

Going to the library or using its online databases can save you from looking like a fool, or worse, receiving a failing grade.

Stephanie Silvas is a mass
communication senior

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