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July 11, 2008

Wikipedia – By the People, For the People

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The collaborative online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, has revolutionized the way many people gather, record, and research—changing the way we share, examine, and look at information—both on and off-line. At its surface, Wikipedia may look like an online version of World Book or Encyclopedia Britannica. Upon a closer examination, you will find that Wikipedia has no authors on staff. Instead, entries in this encyclopedia are written by Wikipedia’s readers. By clicking the “edit this page” link, anyone with an Internet connection can add to the entry – experts, enthusiasts, and even novices. The beauty of this system is that everyone can help the information grow – and articles benefit from the experiences, knowledge, and perspectives of millions of people worldwide. Of course, with this possibility does come a downside. Without formal authors or validation processes, it’s sometimes difficult to ensure the information contained within the articles is correct. Because of this, author biases and Wikipedia “vandalism” can be found in some entries.

Still, Wikipedia has an impressive store of information – most of it carefully cited and verified by its authors and editors. The English language version of Wikipedia has over two million topics, making it one of the most comprehensive encyclopedias on the planet, and the opinions represented show more than just the views of one editor or writer but rather, a compilation of many. This has tremendous implications for the way factual information is gathered but also the way we think about controversial issues, as readers gain from varied voices and opinions expressed. While Wikipedia may not make for official scholarly research, it’s an amazing example of the power created by a global community of researchers, writers, and knowledge workers.

Practical Uses:

  • Find quick information on almost any general topic imaginable
  • Leverage Wikipedia for inspiration and ideas on possible research paper topics
  • Publish information to an existing page about your company or your field of expertise
  • Learn by watching the collaborative process of writers and editors

Insider Tips:

  • When writing entries, keep your tone as objective as possible to avoid having your article flagged by the community
  • When reading, use the references and links sections at the bottom of a Wikipedia article to jumpstart scholarly research
  • To create a new Wikipedia page, register with a user name and password
  • Visit the main page regularly for a daily dose of featured articles and news

What we liked:

  • Wikipedia is available in 22 different languages
  • With the sheer volume of articles, Wikipedia has information on many subjects that are difficult to find elsewhere
  • Articles are automatically flagged to alert the reader when source information is limited, recently updated, or appears to be less reliable
  • Wikipedia’s sister projects, which include textbooks, scientific information, quotes, definitions, and news, pack a powerful punch

What we didn’t like:

  • Search capability within Wikipedia isn’t very user friendly, since searches often cover only exact title matches (use Google when you can’t find what you are seeking)
  • Because of the communal aspect of writing in Wikipedia, articles are not appropriate for academic research, regardless of the quality of the work

Alternatives:

Company Info:

  • Launched: January 15, 2001
  • Owned by the nonprofit, The Wikimedia Foundation
  • Headquarters: San Francisco, CA
  • Founded by Jimmy Wales
  • Web site: http://www.wikipedia.org

Costs:

  • Free