What are the pros and cons of using Wikipedia as an information source, particularly given that anyone can edit almost every page?
The big pro is that there is likely to be an entry for what ever it is you're searching for.
The big con is that the information on that page might not be accurate.
Like all sources of information (and particularly those on the web) you have to treat it with a healthy dose of scepticism. A good Wikipedia entry will have links to external reference sites which you can (and should) use to verify what it says is true. Depending on the importance (to you) of the information you need you could use the number of references as a rough guide to the accuracy.
If you are concerned about the accuracy check the edit history. Have there been many contributors? Have there been any edit wars?
You definitely have to be aware that there are those who have an agenda, as the Climategate Wikipedia scandal showed us: Medieval Warm Period.
- It has a wide verity of information.
- It's easy to find it.
- It's free.
- Since anyone can edit it, it has a risk of containing false or misleading information (although this has been disputed).
- In some cases I've found information to be sparse on some subjects.
If you need reliable information, Wikipedia may not be the best choice (although some of the more popular articles are often watched by dedicated editors for vandalism), but in that case it can still provide useful links as references.
I ran into the same question 3 years ago while doing some tech research for my company at the time. I found out rival companies often change the content of certain article to tarnish their competition. Some are even foolish enough to do it form their own offices, forgetting that their IP address is captured and easily presented.
I refer you to the (admittedly angry) blog post I wrote at the time, referring to a research done by a guy called Virgil Griffith who exposed this behavior and actually "named names".
I once attended a talk by Jimmy Wales, the founder of wikipedia, where he addressed this question. He said that Wikipedia is good (and meant to be) for getting a large-scale overview of topics -- if you don't care about the nitty-gritty details of things (which he said are usually the things that are wrong) wikipedia is great. If you're writing a paper, or need to know something exactly, wikipedia is not for you.
I tend to use wikipedia as a research starting point. My reasons are, in order of importance:
- Breadth of coverage.
- Standardized format, which makes it easy to glean terms and ideas for further investigation .
- Quality of entries (as a starting point).
With this perspective, the only problem I've really had with it is occurrences of spam. And those are few and far between, not because it is rare, but because it is policed amazingly deftly by the community itself.