Gregory Toth, Collections Librarian here at Regent’s University did a great talk on using Wikipedia in HE. He started with some of the reasons why academics don’t like Wikipedia; anyone can edit Wikipedia, it is not a reliable source, it has very low quality writing and the writing can be easily ‘vandalised’. often academics have these objections but at the same time do not really understand what Wikipedia is all about. What is Wikipedia? It is in many languages. It is web-based. It’d free. It is an encyclopaedia. It is supported by an organisation called Wikimedia Foundation which is US-based and is openly editable. The important point here is that it is an ‘encyclopaedia’, which is defined as a ‘comprehensive summary of information’. It is not an advertising platform, it is not a lexicon, it’s not a dictionary, it’s not newspaper, it’s an encyclopaedia! It is there to summarise information and you would rarely cite an encyclopaedia. Anyone can write articles and make changes and all writes are not paid and do it for free.

Some useful stats about Wikipedia. It started in 2001. 6th most visited site on the internet. Average time spent on one article is 4.5 minutes. Which is interesting as the indicates that people are reading articles and not just going there for ‘quick fact checking’. More than 22 million people have registered on the Wikipedia site to edit and write articles (but you don’t have to register to do this). Has more than 280 languages. Has more than 34 million articles. In the last few more Regent’s University’s page has 120 hits per day.

5 key Wikipedia policies. 1. Free content, anything that is written on Wikipedia is freely available to anyone else – there is no copyright, no licence and everything has to be original. 2. Articles should be written from a ‘neutral point of view’. 3. Reliable sources, every single article should cite a third-party source. In practice articles are often deleted because there is no citation or Librarian Editors put up a note saying, ‘citation is missing’. 4. Notability, articles are not original work but summaries of existing research. 5. Good Faith, everyone has the same goal of improving the content of Wikipedia. Quite of the most difficult concept for academics is the third policy of ‘reliable sources’.

Reliability of Wikipedia sources. There has only been one piece of research into the reliability of Wikipedia articles. This was done by the academic science journal ‘Nature’ in 2005. What they did was 42 articles from the Encyclopaedia Britannica and they compared those 42 entries to Wikipedia. They concluded the average science entry in Wikipedia contained 4 mistakes whilst Encyclopaedia Britannica had 3 mistakes. Not a big difference. The main advantage of Wikipedia is that these errors can be changed immediately while a printed book has to wait until a new publication.

The other example Gregory looked at was a comparison between a medical database called ‘Up TO Date’ (used for searching medical symptoms) and Wikipedia. The main difference is that every item in ‘Up To Date’ has an author and is peer-reviewed, copy edited and proof read. Even though this is then case Wikipedia articles still compare favourably. Very recently someone from Wikipedia submitted an article from Wikipedia to an Open Access medical journal. The article was accepted. Although it was difficult to decide who the author was as over 400 people had contributed to it.

It is important to mention that anyone can be an author or review an article on Wikipedia – including lecturers and students. So that people can review, create, translate and collaborate with other editors when writing in Wikipedia. Gregory then gave some good examples of lecturers using Wikipedia with their students in Universities. Probably the most common assignment is to ask students to create or modify an existing article on Wikipedia. Or maybe translate an article. For media students adding a photo, video or drawing to an article, or proof read an article by checking the spelling or grammar. Although it does require some knowledge of coding to write an article. Gregory then gave several good examples from different subject areas in different countries.

Wikipedia can be really useful to students as a good starting point for their research and a good place for them to check out the citations in the article.

Gregory concluded his presentation with a ‘live’ display on how to edit a Wikipedia article – Brilliant!