AN APPROACH TO READING A WIKIPEDIA ARTICLE

A big part of being connected to the internet is having access to the seemingly unlimited amounts of information.  It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the flow of information, if we don’t develop the skills to navigate our way through the ocean of information that surrounds us every day and learn to evaluate information with a critical eye.

Wikipedia, the online collaborative encyclopedia is the most famous wiki in the world. Wikipedia has changed the way we search for and find information. Encyclopedia entries are not written by scholars with years of study in a particular topic, but instead, they are written by anyone with knowledge about that topic. Although this has made information freely available and democratic, the process of adding information to Wikipedia has raised some concern among academics.

For example, although everyone now has a way to share their knowledge about a particular topic, that means that information might not always be completely accurate. Anyone can click the Edit button on any page and either add, delete, or change bits of information. Of course, while Wikipedia has taken measures to make sure facts are maintained, inaccuracies are still quite common.

When searching for information on Wikipedia, there are some things you can do to ensure the information you find is accurate and complete. First, understand the way Wikipedia works. A popular article is likely to be viewed and edited by many people. Because so many people have added, deleted, and changed the information in that article, it’s more likely to be accurate and complete. For example, the entry for Digital Humanities has been viewed by 6,681 of people and edited by 428 people for a total of 946 edits. With so many revisions and people playing the overseer role, it is probably as factual and unbiased as possible.

The second thing you can do to ensure getting factual information from Wikipedia is to check more sources to ensure accuracy. So instead of relying only on the information you found on Wikipedia, try searching the web for a second and even third source of information, then compare the information from various sources to see if they all agree. If one or more of the sources are different, you might ask yourself why, and then search for even more sources.

It is important to develop media literacy to avoid just passively accepting all messages and instead learn to think carefully and critically about the media we consume.  When evaluating the accuracy and credibility of the content you come across online, here are a few strategies you can use to judge whether a webpage is reliable and if the information you find is factual or false.

You could start with something as simple as checking the date the article you’re reading was published. Some information on the web is incredibly outdated and may not have been updated in years. Even if the information was accurate at the time, it may no longer be reliable as new data and studies may have emerged since then. The last update for the Digital Humanities page occurred on Oct 19, 2020 by Monkbot.

If you determine that the information is recent and up-to-date, next think about who published the information and what motivation they might have for doing so. While some publishers want to share information online, others may be motivated by making money or gaining followers online, or just spreading their personal beliefs, regardless of real facts. For example, the Digital Humanities entry has 585 pages that link to it.  If you inspect the list, it does not seem like anyone is trying to communicate misinformation as it looks like a large community of users are involved.  But that’s why it’s important to check multiple sources to confirm information you find. But it is also possible that the author of this article is sharing biased information to.

Bias isn’t always bad, though. Personal bloggers who publish articles on their own sites to share their thoughts and ideas may present valuable information or unique perspectives, but it’s still important to consider what biases the author may have and be able to distinguish between opinion and fact. Similarly, it is also important to be aware of your own biases and to make sure you don’t just look for information that backs up your current opinions or perception of the facts. Not all key contributors to the Digital Humanities page had biographical information.  From the ones that did I can determine that they may be subject matter experts. For example, Catsandthings holds graduate degrees in the humanities and is interested in Wikipedia and education; Rudolf Ammann is a researcher at the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities; Elijahmeeks is the Digital Humanities Specialist at Stanford University.

Be open to checking multiple resources and changing your mind when presented with evidence that contradicts your positions. So those are just a few strategies to keep in mind as you navigate the web to help make sure the information you find, and use is as reliable and accurate as possible.

These questions are not the only questions you can and should ask when evaluating media, but they can provide the necessary foundation to start thinking critically about the media we engage with every day.

Wikipedia, in many ways, does break down a lot of hierarchical assumptions that people have. It turns out that it’s easier to get quality when you have more people participating, and when you judge the quality of someone’s work on its own merits rather than paying too much attention to their credentials.

My experience navigating a Wikipedia page

  1. Go to Wikipedia.org
  2. Select your language version in the upper right corner of the screen
  3. Click inside the box that says search and type what you are looking for
  4. Click the magnifying glass or press ENTER on your keyboard

One of three things will happen depending on what you have typed in the first. An ideal situation is that you will go straight to the article you’re looking for if what you’ve typed in is close enough to the specific title of the article – congratulations no further searching is needed. If you type in a word or phrase that might refer to multiple different articles Wikipedia has, you will be taken to a disambiguation page. A disambiguation page is just a page in Wikipedia to list all the articles your search term may refer to for example when Wikipedia looks up “Theodore Roosevelt” the name comes up in many different articles. Click one of the words or phrases in blue font in the list to take you to further disambiguation pages or to a specific article. Searching for “Digital Humanities” does not result in disambiguation. 

If you type in a phrase or something else related to a topic but not the specific name of a topic you may be taken to a general search page underneath the search box in the main window. You can filter your results; click multimedia if you are looking for an image sound clip or video in a Wikipedia article. Click everything if you want to look for your topic anywhere on Wikipedia. When you click advanced you can click checkboxes to select where you want to search like in a disambiguation page click one of the words or phrases in blue font to take you to further pages or to a specific article about what you clicked on.

An article is typically laid out as the title of the page is emboldened and the first sentence explains the when, where, why, providing a context of e.g., Digital Humanities article is about and why it’s notable for inclusion in Wikipedia. We also have links to other pages on Wikipedia. There is an information box or info box with provides a little summary information on the page and a content box that highlights the headings.

There are citations backing up the content, usually after statements or paragraphs. You do see lots of links to other Wikipedia articles to help your understanding of the article and citations running all the way through.  As you scroll all the way down more headings and subheadings appear, more images, more wiki links more citations further down the page all the way down. There is a section that you can include other pages that would be of interest to the person reading the page. Further down the page an external links section two websites outside of Wikipedia that you can click through to find out a bit more about.  Images and media related to Digital Humanities at Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia sister project of about 44 million openly licensed image files and clips, etc. And at the bottom this is where categories appear and so that you can group similar articles together. Before it can become a featured article, it needs to go through quality check by wiki projects. These are places where Wikipedia editors that have a particular interest and a particular subject interest.

They can come together and help improve that subject’s coverage and they will normally show all the featured articles that they have got related to their project.

Why not to use Wikipedia for college research

  1. Wikipedia is simply an encyclopedia. Encyclopedias simply contain the basic facts, and common assumption about subjects. There is no original research or primary source material in Wikipedia or any encyclopedia.
  2. You should not rely on any one source. You need to be skeptical, and verify the information you find, through multiple sources.
  3. For any source, you need to check the reliability, bias, and the authority of authors.

But there are a few very good reasons to check out Wikipedia.

  1. Discover topics that are new to you, Wikipedia can give you a good basic overview of the subject
  2. From that overview, you can identify keywords, authors, and concepts that you can then go and research in books and databases. It’s actually a perfect starting point and can help you clarify and narrow your topic.
  3. Oftentimes there are bibliographies or lists of references to books, journals, newspapers, and definitive websites that Wikipedia editors used in writing the articles. Following those links can lead quickly to the type of information that will be useful to your research.

2 comments

  1. Excellent! The Archivist of the United States and the Librarian of Congress are both advocates for the use of wikipedia – with certain cautions – exactly for the reasons stated above. Well done!

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