I’m going to explain why Wikipedia is the best encyclopedia ever in the history of the world, hands down. You should absolutely encourage your kids to use it for their homework and as a source when writing papers.
Vast Author and Expert Resources
First of all, Wikipedia articles can technically be edited/written by anybody. However, when you register to be an author or translator for Wikipedia you actually do have to tell Wikipedia who you really are, they have to have reliable contact information for you, and everything you do on Wikipedia is tracked by them permanently. Anyone violating their rules is banned for life. Wikipedia makes great efforts to maintain the credibility of their site. Not only can Wikipedia see everything you do as an author, but so can everybody else, author or not.
More tools are becoming available to monitor Wikipedia authors, such as a Twitter feed that alerts followers to edits make by congress members or their staffers. So even though Wikipedia is so enormous (another strength that we’ll get to in a second) it is peer reviewed by potentially the whole world 24-7. Any errors or tampering are bound to be seen by some one of their millions and millions of users and reported on very quickly.
Peer Review and Public Scrutiny
That takes us to the next strength of Wikipedia. Normal encyclopedia articles are written by invitation by experts in certain fields, usually university professors. They are not peer reviewed. A single author decides what information on a particular topic is most relevant and they include that information in a short encyclopedia length article. No one ever fact checks. No one outside the original author ever gives feedback or input on relevant information. But on Wikipedia every line of every article is scrutinized by the vast public, many of whom are experts on the topics they are looking at on Wikipedia. For example, we’ll use the topic of George Washington. Instead of a single university professor writing a condensed recap of George Washington’s life many different experts or amateur historians can add to or edit that article. So you get a larger, more complete picture of the topic.
In fact, let’s compare the entry on George Washington on Wikipedia vs. the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Washington is fairly detailed and well written. It is a good source. But it’s not as good as Wikipedia’s article. First of all look at the linked text all through the Wikipedia article (see the screenshot below, number 1). Each of those links takes you to another article for further information, adding hugely to understanding of what you are reading about George Washington. If I’m reading about the young George Washington’s exploits in the French and Indian War, but have never heard of that war or have only a fuzzy idea of what it was all about I can instantly gratify my curiosity by clicking on the link right in the text. Britannica has some links, but not nearly to the extent of Wikipedia.
Now, direct your attention to the #2 and #3 on the screen shot above. Those spots are highlighting the footnotes in Wikipedia. At the bottom of every article are numerous sources, many of them linked online, others directing the reader to books or scholarly articles published on the subject. There are 16 notes, 266 footnotes and a bibliography comprising 52 different books written by scholars about George Washington, plus external links to 17 authoritative sites online. Britannica has no footnotes, no sources backing up their information, no external links. So in the article above, we do not have to merely trust the author of the article that George Washington was called the “father of his country” during his lifetime, we can click or scroll to the bottom and see the original source. That is, frankly, revolutionary.
Inaccuracy and Bias Pointed Out
Whenever a Wikipedia article or a line from an article is sub-standard by being biased, imprecise, or using “weasel words”, volunteer editors find these flaws and point them out, right in the article. You can see an example of this from the George Washington article. We’ve circled and labeled the spot in the screenshot below. This is a pretty mild example of an author saying “historians” instead of saying exactly which historians and pointing to a source. At some point this passage will be edited to show which historians or perhaps rewritten so the line is taken out. But in the meantime seekers after knowledge can see right inline where there are inadequacies. When such inadequacies occur in a Britannica article, no one ever points them out. Biases, inaccuracies, and imprecision remain.
Wikipedia also has user rated articles. When articles meet certain criteria like a neutral tone, accuracy, and thoroughness they then can be nominated as “good articles”. The top articles can become “featured articles”. If an article is considered “good” or “featured” a symbol appears on the page in the upper right corner. Likewise, substandard articles which have a biased tone, are very short (known as a “stub”) or are not very well linked and footnoted will have these inadequacies noted right on the article where everyone can see it.
Wikipedia articles have many more images in the article than traditional encyclopedias. Part of the Wikipedia family is Wikimedia, a repository of public domain and creative commons images. Millions of free images reside in the Wikimedia collections, gathered and uploaded by users the world over. Like Wikipedia, they are peer reviewed to ensure that they really are in the public domain or under a CC license. These images are available to enhance the Wikipedia articles. Therefore Wikipedia has many more images, both historical and modern, than their competitors. The Wikipedia article on George Washington has 45+ images. The Britannica article on the same topic has 24 images.
Wikipedia articles, written by many people and not just one, are much lengthier and thorough than other encyclopedias. The Wikipedia article about George Washington is more than twice as long as the Britannica and is only one of many articles on topics directly related to George Washington or about different aspects of his life. Britannica has just one article on George Washington.
Wikipedia has 4.9 million articles in the English language and 35 million articles in a total of 288 different languages. The Encyclopedia Britannica online has 120,000 articles and only in the English language. Wikipedia could never accomplish this with the model Britannica uses, inviting respected professionals to write articles. But it can and has achieved this by creating a platform where everyone can contribute the knowledge of their expertise, because nearly everyone is an expert on something.
With so many articles many obscure topics are covered on Wikipedia that don’t get an article in other encyclopedias. Mbalax, a form of Senegal and Gambia dance music, has an article on Wikipedia, but is only mentioned in passing in the Britannica online.
Everything is Free
Every article on Wikipedia is free in every sense of the word. You don’t have to have a subscription or join the site to view it. The text is also free, released immediately into the public domain so you can quote to your heart’s content.
Parents and Teachers Should Trust and Support Wikipedia
Wikipedia is better sourced, more thorough, vastly more peer reviewed, and much more likely to have obscure topics than any other encyclopedia in the history of the world. The way they accomplish this is by the very thing Wikipedia is criticized for, namely, everyone can contribute. Wikipedia should definitely be counted a reliable source for research and ought to be the first place everyone goes when beginning to learn about a topic. Wikipedia is the best encyclopedia in the world, hands down.
Wikipedia is also a non-profit free source spreading education and knowledge world wide. They survive on donations. Once or twice a year they have a fundraising campaign to pay for the servers, platforms, electricity, and staff it requires to keep the project going. Layers of Learning is a regular contributor. We would like you to consider contributing at campaign time as well.
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