Wikipedia: Is free info all it's cracked up to be?

Grilled cheese, World War II and fiduciary have one thing in common: if you “Google” them, each prompts a Wikipedia entry as the No. 1 result.

Wikipedia is all too convenient, but of what value is it? What good is a stockpile of information if it’s unreliable and often incorrect, as many have said Wikipedia is?

Since its launch in 2001, the “The Free Encyclopedia” has grown exponentially, offering a definition (or more) for almost every topic. Last spring the resource reached the 10 million article mark over a spectrum of 20 different languages in its attempt to “summarize all human knowledge.”

Yet controversy over the site mounts daily: schools encourage students to abstain from the resource — if they don’t ban it altogether. Others criticize its ability to be supplemented, edited and updated by anyone — regardless of knowledge or credentials. The Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC) recently mentioned Wikipedia specifically as part of its explanation for lower-than-usual grades among local students.

An April 2007 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project uncovered overwhelming statistics showing more than a third of American adults consult Wikipedia (and admit to it). The study also states 46 percent of full- or part-time students over 18 have consulted Wikipedia.

With so much reader-friendly, easily-accessible information floating around the Internet under Wikipedia’s URL, it remains a tempting option to researchers. According to Wikipedia’s own statistics, the website hosts 683 millions visitors annually as of April 2008.

Occasionally, people bump into Wikipedia’s errors in ways that prove uncomfortable for the unwary Wiki user. HUMAN EVENTS’ Editor Jed Babbin has had to gently correct people more than once who introduce him using the Wikipedia biography of him because it’s inaccurate and out-of-date.

“I do a great many radio interviews, and it’s amazing how many hosts use the Wikipedia bio to introduce me,” he said. “It is wrong in many respects and out of date — by several years — in others. I hate to correct a host on the air, but if they’re relying on Wikipedia, they should expect to be corrected. I can’t imagine any journalist relying on it as a source, or to even check quotes.”

Some would argue Wikipedia is “dumbing down” the culture, but that’s not their goal. Wikipedia aims to continue growing in order to “extend free information to the world,” said Jay Walsh, head of communications for the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that operates Wikipedia.

Wikipedia does acknowledge its own shortcomings. “We do try to inform people at every turn that Wikipedia isn’t perfect,” Walsh said. He also said that Wikipedia discourages its users from accessing it for academic research. The site itself states, “As with any source, especially one of unknown authorship, you should be wary and independently verify the accuracy of Wikipedia information if possible.”

An international student — who prefers to remain nameless — at Charles University in Prague was penalized for merely using Wikipedia, not for gathering inaccurate information. “I had a class of Global Communication with an American teacher at my home university — the Charles University in Prague — and he gave me a C for an essay that was, in my opinion, written very well, just because I used Wikipedia, which, according to him, is not a source of information that a person can cite on the academic field,” she said.

Users have been warned, leaving the burden of responsibility on their shoulders. But that begs the question: if you have to do independent research to check Wikipedia, why not just skip a step and do the independent research first?

The answer is, of course, that most people don’t take their writing as seriously as they should.

Despite the negative possibilities, Wikipedia also offers valid information and is frequently updated and edited to prevent and reduce incorrect information.

One of Wikipedia’s most helpful features is the citation system, linking reported fact in an article to the source it was derived from, allowing people to check the validity of claims made on Wikipedia or jump start their research.

With no Wikipedia staff to oversee incoming or edited material, the lofty task of article upkeep is ceded to a troop of faceless, online volunteers — no credentials necessary.

“About 75,000 editors — from expert scholars to casual readers — regularly edit Wikipedia, and these experienced editors often help to create a consistent style throughout the encyclopedia, following our Manual of Style,” according to the Wikipedia home page, which is not part of the free range editing articles.

Some don’t have any intention of furthering knowledge on the site. Celebrity Stephen Colbert said of Wikipedia in 2006 that “Together, we can create a reality that we can all agree on — the reality we just agreed on.”

But this idea molds Wikipedia negatively, by countering the founder’s original goals. By encouraging people to purposefully contribute inaccurate information — either in jest or to impede Wikipedia — the site steadily becomes more unreliable.

Wikipedia has been criticized for a liberal slant as well but Walsh said that “neutrality is the focus of volunteers’ work at the end of the day.”

“Neutral point of view is a fundamental Wikipedia principle and a cornerstone of Wikipedia. All Wikipedia articles and other encyclopedic content must be written from a neutral point of view (NPOV), representing fairly, and as far as possible without bias, all significant views that have been published by reliable sources,” according to Wikipedia’s online policy.

One thing is certain, though: Wikipedia isn’t the one who will receive an “F” for turning in a paper that contains inaccurate information. Students and journalists beware.