The Reliability of Resources

June 22, 2008 § Leave a comment

Guy Kawasaki tweeted this question today:

Is the Internet a Source of Information or Misinformation?

With a link to this post on Trueomors about how people think that information found through research on the Internet is not reliable, citing Wikipedia as the prime example. People are saying that children’s heads are being filled with untruths and propaganda, and that Wikipedia is inherently bad because anyone can submit content.

Here is my response:  Pashaw!

Yes, I admit that the content of Wikipedia must be regarded with scrutiny and care, but no more so than any other research reference. Misinformation is also printed in books. If people are trained to research with discernment and a critical eye, they know that they can’t rely on the accuracy of any one resource.  You should always use more than one search engine when doing Internet research, and you should always use more than one encyclopedia. Once you’ve gathered those references, you should then look for the primary sources that are often referenced in citations. This might even require going to the library and — gasp — looking at books!

The Internet simply makes some commonly used resources more easily available than they ever have been. No longer do you have to go to the library to use the encyclopedias there, or the card catalog (remember those?). Wearing your PJs and bunny slippers, you can research your paper from the privacy of your own home. If I were a lazy college student, I might be tempted not to verify my sources and simply rely on Wikipedia as my sole source. But then I wouldn’t expect to get a good grade.

The point I’m trying to make is that whether it’s Wikipedia or a reference in a book, any research worth his or her salt must confirm any information with more than one reference.

The thing that I like about Wikipedia is exactly what makes it problematic. I really love the concept of user-contributed content. It’s kind of a utopian idea, even if it isn’t executed in reality how it is conceived in it’s ideals.  I like to be optimistic, but I’m not naive. I’ve heard about the people who will sabotage McCain’s or Obama’s or Clinton’s Wikipedia pages. I know there are unscrupulous people out there who want to push their own agendas rather than contribute to the integrity of available information on the Internet.

This has been the challenge of the Internet all along: How to manage the onslaught of available information. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff?  The answer is this: The same way researchers always have since libraries existed. You use the best research methods and tool available to find all the information you can about your subject, not relying on just one method or resource. Once you have gathered all of your data, then you analyse it, verifying your sources.

Think of it! If we provide better research training to people when they’re in college, when they come across bad information on Wikipedia perhaps they’ll be inclined to fix the citation, thus contributing to the integrity of that resource. Perhaps then Wikipedia will have a better reputation.

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