By Jefferson Flanders

Wikipedia, the “user-generated” online encyclopedia, has gradually become the research tool of first resort on the Web. Nielsen//NetRatings now reports that Wikipedia was the top online news and information destination in May with 46.8 million unique visitors.

That domination should grow, based on usage trends and the search-friendliness of Wikipedia’s massive and constantly growing database, with its more than seven million articles in some 250 languages.

Jonathan Dee recently noted in the Sunday New York Times Magazine (“All the News That’s Fit to Print Out”) that Wikipedia has moved beyond its original mission of free reference and has morphed into a leading spot news provider. Millions turned to the site for updates after the Virginia Tech murders and the arrests of several young Muslim men in an alleged plot to attack Fort Dix.

Issues of accuracy

Yet Wikipedia has its detractors; if you use the site, you understand some of their concerns about the site’s reliability and accuracy. These critics question the “wisdom of crowds” (the site’s volunteer collaborative editing process with its emphasis on consensus over credentials) and point to Wikipedia’s inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Many college professors, wary of the quality of the online encyclopedia’s entries, prohibit students from citing Wikipedia as a reference. Author Nicholas Carr has decried what he calls the “cult of the amateur,” arguing: “What the Wikipedia community should do is put a warning notice on the top of every page: ‘WARNING: This page may include factual errors.’”

There is no question that Wikipedia must be employed with great caution. (I would look for an independent corroboration of any information you find on it). Despite its flaws, however, it can be used as a helpful starting point in research, a usefulness Carr concedes (just as an initial Google search is valuable for its quick scan of what the Web offers on a given topic). Wikipedia often provides a bibliography and a number of source citations from credible authors or institutions that can be used to dig further.

Moreover, researchers and scholars can testify that the problem of omissions, errors, and distortion is not confined to the Internet; as the Modern Language Association notes, sources are not “equally reliable or of equal quality,” whether in print or on the Web. Flawed sources, and flawed information, existed long before the creation of the Web; peer review and other checks-and-balances were developed to root out error in academic sources.

The open access model of the Internet, where traditional information gatekeepers (librarians, academics, editors) hold less sway, leaves individual users to figure out what information is credible, accurate, reliable, and relevant. In the past, researchers confronted the challenges of access and scarcity; today they must struggle with an embarrassment of riches, a glut of information, accessible at the click of a mouse.

Evaluating information

Whatever the purposes of your research—whether for a marketing report, college paper, newspaper article, or for personal education—the key is to evaluate the quality and validity of the information you find. It’s vital when you are developing assumptions and reaching conclusions that your factual foundation is solid. (The dangers of GIGO—garbage-in-garbage-out—apply not only to computer programming, but also to critical thinking).

The careful researcher reviews the raw source material (ranging from published reports or documents to personal interviews to scholarly articles to Web blogs and postings) and looks to establish basic facts, to balance conflicting accounts, and to independently evaluate each source (all the while alert to potential error, distortion, and incompleteness.)

This evaluation should take into account five key factors in establishing the accuracy and validity of information, whether it is found by surfing the Web or in the dusty stacks of a university library. The five are:

  • Authority. Who stands behind the information? Is it from a primary or secondary source? What expertise do authors or editors have, if any? What are their credentials, academic or professional? Is the information subject to peer review or an established editing process? If documents are involved, where did they come from? Who vouches for their authenticity?

    Clearly these questions reflect a bias towards establishment sources (academics, scholars, scientists, journalists), where there are professional standards and practices, and where authors or editors are generally selected for their expertise. This kind of authority does not automatically mean trustworthiness (witness recent embarrassing scandals involving plagiarism and falsification in journalism and academia), but there are more checks-and-balances and accountability when established institutions are involved.

  • Point-of-View. What are the biases or prejudices of the creator(s) of any given information? Are they neutral or partisan? Are they looking to advance a cause or ideology? Do they try to pass off opinions as facts? What other motives may be at work that could introduce bias (personal aggrandizement, professional jealousy, institutional pride, etc.)?

  • Transparency. How easy is it to trace the origins of the information? Are there citations or references? Can other researchers access the information (especially important with primary source documents)?

  • Scope and Depth. How broad and deep is the information? What questions can this information help answer? How much detail is offered? What is missing?

  • Accuracy. Has the veracity or accuracy of the information been challenged? Does it match other sources of information on the same topic, or on the facts? How current is the information? Is it the most up-to-date?

Asking and answering these basic questions will naturally reduce the amount of information you need to consider. Some sources will prove unreliable or biased; some will not offer enough detail; experienced researchers recognize that they will have to weed out and discard information as part of the process. At the end of this review, ideally you have refined your collected information into the most accurate and reliable research findings.

As more and more information migrates to the Web, the need for careful evaluation and examination (what the British call “vetting”) will grow. While Google’s plans to digitize the contents of the world’s libraries have been scaled back, largely because of legal concerns from publishers, information is nonetheless being transferred to the Web at a staggering clip. It is not hard to imagine a future where one mark of an educated person will be their ability to navigate this amazing digital repository of information, sorting and evaluating and extracting the information they need, confident of its relative reliability and accuracy.

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue. This essay has also been published through the At Work Newswire.

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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