While it is easy to point out that Wikipedia is unreliable, as anyone can edit most articles, it helps to provide examples. Years ago, I came across a bullet point on the article for Kublai Khan that claimed he invented ballet. This bullet was buried in about a dozen accurate bullets, giving it some sense of credibility. However, my knowledge of Kublai Khan’s exploits and my keen awareness of nonsense helped me catch it and laugh.
Yet, this was just an example of someone making a minor edit to a Wikipedia article. I doubt most folks fell for it, but then again, who knows. What are more concerning are the elaborate hoaxes on the free online encyclopedia.
For example, editors for Wikipedia recently took down the article on the Bicholim Conflict (1640-41), which pitted colonial Portugal against the Maratha Empire of India. The hoax was more than a bullet point, but instead it was a 4,500-word article that received a “Featured Article nomination” in 2007. It never moved past candidate status, but was still marked as a “Good Article” and remained on Wikipedia unchallenged for more than five years.
Although no longer accessible, the hoax is an ingenious one. The prankster chose an obscure topic by selecting a period during the early eighteenth-century among groups like Portuguese colonials and Indians.
Its downfall only came about when one Wikipedia editor decided to review its sources. It turned out that none of them existed. While this random editing may be concerning, it demonstrates what any student should do for any information he or she receives from an online source–verify through the sources. It is easy to criticize Wikipedia’s reliability, but it is the student’s responsibility to track down reliable sources for their material.
It is tempting to run quick checks through Wikipedia for information, as the information is free, easily accessible, and accurate a lot of the time, but it is never reliable. Students should always remember the latter and always find reliable sources to back up their work.
By Scott Manning
Online Learning Tips, Student Contributor