Wiki’in it.

Got into a huge argument a few days ago with a friend over the academic acceptability of Wikipedia. It started because the UC system–or at least my school–is considering a complete and permanent ban on Wikipedia as a research tool and a possible citation. My guess is that in 5 years, you’ll be able to quote it in papers. Perhaps it’s because I remember how not too long who the ENTIRE internet was off limits as far as academic research was concerned. Why? Ignorance. Now of course, that stance has been recanted, and every college student knows how to use to the web for scholarly research. So why do I think it will be allowed?

The argument that Glenn Reynolds puts forth in Army of Davids is worth repeating. Let’s say Encyclopedia Britannica has a 100 total articles and Wikipedia has a 1000 (more like a trillion, but let’s keep it simple). And the scale of accuracy is 0 to 10. Due to Wikipedia’s lack of certification, the accuracy of each article is 7, and with Britannica’s more strenuous process is a 9. The problem however, is that for each topic that Britannica neglects to address, it gets a zero. So when you stretch the timeline out–you’ll see that Wikipedia is overwhelmingly more accurate on average because it actually covers more material.

The average error correction time on Wikipedia is incredibly fast. I can’t track the numbers down right now, but I remember it being something like under 10 minutes.

A large group on semi-informed people is statistically more accurate than an incredibly small group of experts. Read Wisdom of Crowds, or anything on “Future Games.” And those are normally applied to things that haven’t even happened yet. So to assert that a crowd is better at predicting the future than they are at simply recording the past is ridiculous.

The majority of information on Wikipedia isn’t even up for dispute. It’s dates, birthplaces, timelines, etc; which, if anyone stopped to think for a minute, they would realize are the ONLY things people quote encyclopedias for anyway. Only the especially juvenile use secondary sources for the crucial parts of their research papers anyway. As a general rule, in the meat of a paper you never quote dictionaries, encyclopedias or textbooks. There is no reason a student shouldn’t be able to say “Wikipedia places his birth in France during the mid-14th century.

The problem here is essentially a conflict of interest. Professors–as per maintaining their livelihood–have a vested interest in preventing the mass proliferation of knowledge. At its core, Wikipedia renders the average professor obsolete. It removes the human limitations of the middleman and replaces it with an infinitely large and more accurate source of information. Of course, they’re going to fight it. Students too are biased. They’d like to utilize the ease of Wikipedia–letting others collect and synthesize the vastness of academia for them.

So the solution lies somewhere in the middle. Professors–CollegeBoard perhaps–should get together and, either with the help of Wikipedia or independently, and begin to certify articles that meet their collective burden. Out of the millions of entries, some are obviously unacceptable. But the majority of them are detailed and helpful. With a seal of approval, students should be able to incorporate this wealth of human experience into their journey.

The university system is supposed to be a collection of the world’s greatest minds that’ve come together for one purpose–to teach and educate. It’s terrible ironic then, that when a computer database comes alone and automates the works of those greatest minds, that they’d fight it tooth and nail. It is simply too easy to dismiss Wikipedia as inaccurate or unscholarly. Statistically, that assertion is flat wrong. It defies the massive advancements we’ve made in psychology, economics, politics, and mathematics. A larger selectorate is smarter than a smaller one. Fact.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.