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See also Blogs | Digital liaison | Ethics and the health librarian | Information literacy | Social media | Top Fifty (50) Medical Wikis You Might (Want to) Know | Wikis

Wikipedia is a freely-accessible online encyclopedia maintained by thousands of volunteer editors called wikipedians. Wikipedia is the largest crowdsourced global encyclopedia of human knowledge, and easily the most popular general reference tool ever conceived. It has an estimated 1 billion readers worldwide, covers 300+ languages and contains a vast collection of more than 34 million articles. (See the most recent Wikimedia Report Card). In English, there are more than 5 million articles written with more than 100,000 active contributors. The health and medical articles are among the most-used, and edited. Wikidata, an offshoot of Wikipedia, is a centralized repository for data and facts, and feeds information into Wikipedia. To assist editing, Wikipedia now provides its editors with access to licenced resources to incorporate better evidence and peer-reviewed articles into entries. In 2015, the Canadian-based publication, University Affairs, published Wikipedia: a gift to the world.

Wikipedia has been beset by difficulties since its inception in 2001; poor editorial control, fact-checking, authority problems, reliability, poor writing, Wikipedia wars, etc. In an attempt to synthesize all extant research on Wikipedia, Mesgari et al (2014) looked at more than 100 empirical studies about Wikipedia in a systematic review. Also in 2014, an article was published evaluating Wikipedia's treatment of 10 popular medical topics (see Hasty et al, 2014) which found a number of errors when checked against standard peer-reviewed sources. The authors recommend caution in using Wikipedia to answer questions regarding patient care; however, the Cochrane Collaboration refuted the findings in the article, see Is Wikipedia’s medical content really 90% wrong?. For other views regarding Wikipedia's treatment of health and medicine topics, see Azer, 2014, Koo, 2014, Bould, 2014, Allahwala, 2013, Grossman, 2013, Mathew, 2013 and Kupferberg, 2011.

For insight into views of Wikipedia across the academy (including medical and health topics up to 2012), see the systematic review by Okoli et al, 2012.

Why use Wikipedia? Affordances

  • Easy to access and read; a good starting point for research
  • A starting point to check facts, sources and major figures in the subject
  • Anyone can use Wikipedia, and contribute to entries
  • Hiring experts to write is expensive and therefore restrictive and time-consuming
  • Using volunteers, and drawing on collective efforts, provides access to crowdsourced information and brings web-users together
  • A 2005 study in Nature magazine compared Wikipedia with Encyclopedia Britannica and found "among 42 science entries ...the difference in accuracy was not particularly great" (Johnson)
  • Wikipedia is a good starting point for researchers; it presents background information and links for follow-up
  • All kinds of librarians teach users how to assess information by checking for authority, accuracy and reliability
  • Wikipedia presents opportunities to librarians and teachers to teach critical appraisal skills when encountering information there
  • Wikipedia is updated in real time, so information is dispersed to the masses infinitely faster than if it were edited
  • Its speed and access to information is unparalleled compared with traditional encyclopedias (which introduces both advantages and disadvantages to Wikipedia readers; this should be clearly explained to readers perhaps in the form of a caveat)
  • Wikipedia is symbolic of web 2.0, crowdsourcing and mass collaboration, and has enormous potential to disseminate human knowledge. One of its primary features is its database of editorial changes that have been made on every page, a feature that makes it possible to see every edit ever made since the entry was created.
  • Supported by the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia is completely free of commercial advertising. It is also one of the most-visited websites, attracting up to one billion visitors a month or around 40% of global Internet traffic. Knowledge is always evolving, and never static in any case, and Wikipedia is emblematic of the growth of human knowledge, rhizomatically, dynamically, unending through time.

Caveat Lector - Constraints

  • Anyone can use Wikipedia, and contribute to entries so there may be errors (also an affordance)
  • Facts may be inaccurate and proliferate on social media and wikis
  • Updates are in real time, so false information can be disseminated without time for correction
  • “Vandalism” is an ongoing problem in Wikipedia
  • this is where users deface something causing an entry to be locked; fewer than 1% of entries are locked
  • Without knowing how to judge entries, it can be difficult to trust information because it hasn't been vetted by editors or experts
  • If entries are incomplete, users won’t have a sense of what is missing without conducting further research
  • Wikipedia may be acceptable as a starting point, but not as a comprehensive research tool
  • In 2013, there have been news reports alleging that Wikipedians are biased, and bring their political ideologies into their editing of entries

Wikipedia articles are accepted (or not) based on:

  • Notability: Subject must receive significant coverage in reliable sources independent of the subject, and presumed to meet criteria for a stand-alone article
  • No original research: we do not accept facts, allegations, ideas or stories for which no reliable published sources exist
  • Secret: Oral history that is published online is able to be used, as long as only the facts are delivered.
  • Sources: Anything that could be challenged must be backed up by reliable sources
  • A reliable source is published in a trusted new source or publisher; secondary sources are preferred; primary sources are okay but should not be the only source used
  • What NOT to use: Self-published sources i.e. blogs, patents, newsletters, personal websites, forums & tweets; Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Myspace
  • Academic, peer-reviewed, scholarly = preferred; use blogs that are reliable trustworthy sources
  • Conflict of Interest: Where advancing outside interests is more important to an editor than advancing the aims of Wikipedia, that editor stands in a conflict of interest
  • Example: editing your institutional page without secondary sources. Example: Adding external links to your general website on Wikipedia
  • Example: Creating an account called “ArchivesAmerArt” to serve as an institutional group account for edits.
  • Conflict of Interest: create a user account for yourself; create a userpage that describes your position, institution and area of expertise; edit as yourself, NOT as your institution; improve articles and content related your passion & interests, you know the right sources & tools to improve Wikipedia

Current research on Wikipedia

  • For insight into academics' view of Wikipedia, see the systematic review by Okoli et al, 2012.
  • According to Messner (2013), the collaboratively-edited encyclopedia Wikipedia is among the most popular websites in the world. Subsequently, it poses a great challenge to traditional encyclopedias, which for centuries have set the standards of society's knowledge with their printed editions.
  • This study analyzed the framing of content in encyclopedia entries of top Fortune companies in Wikipedia and the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Content analyses of the length, tonality and topics of 3,985 sentences showed that Wikipedia entries were significantly longer, more positively and negatively framed, and focused more on corporate social responsibilities and legal and ethical issues than the online entries of the traditional encyclopedia, which were predominantly neutral.
  • The findings stress that the knowledge-generation processes in society appear to be fundamentally shifting because of the use of social media collaboration. These changes significantly impact which information becomes available to society and how it is framed.
  • Several studies view Wikipedia as a suitable model for knowledge creation. In fact, several articles cite Wikipedia as a knowledge-based platform used for research purposes by scholars and librarians. Wikipedia’s most vociferous critics also hail from these ranks but a number of academics have positive, if nuanced, views of Wikipedia’s value. Holley (2010) suggests, for example, that Wikipedia is a useful platform for libraries to develop crowd-sourced services.


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