Wikis Are Tricky

For better or worse, wikis as web-based collaborative knowledge management systems have been correlated with Wikipedia – the most famous wiki of them all. However, can we confess that Wikipedia is the information resource which we all have consulted at one time or another, but then refuse to admit using it because “we’re not supposed to”? What does that say about wikis in general as a means to create, collect, and store information? Are they good, bad, or deserving of a more nuanced perspective?

When I entered college as an undergraduate, it was drilled into me by both professors and instructional librarians to never, ever cite Wikipedia as a source for an assignment. But those same voices of authority didn’t really explain why Wikipedia was unreliable and, to further confuse matters, they would offhandedly tell me and fellow students that Wikipedia was a great starting point for locating journal articles and/or primary sources. Now that I’m a MLIS student, I know that “following the links” is citation-chaining and, in that sense, Wikipedia can help in the process of introductory information gathering. I think the question of whether open wikis, and Wikipedia, are credible is a microcosm of the larger debate about what can and can’t be trusted in the sea of internet information.

Although not often acknowledged, open wikis, with Wikipedia being the foremost example, do have strengths as information resources. First, they are open-access, and freely disseminate knowledge/information to anyone with an internet connection. Next, anyone can write and edit on open wikis, as well as collaboratively contribute information, making it egalitarian. Wikipedia is also good for quick fact checking and basic background information, and users can follow links to outside references in articles to find more in-depth information. Sure, Wikipedia is imperfect, but it’s a decent source of information since existing articles are frequently updated to reflect current events unlike traditional print reference sources. In addition, open wikis provide diverse viewpoints because of their crowdsourced content, and are highly relevant because of their broad scope which means that almost any topic is covered, even obscure subjects.

Still, open wikis have many disadvantages as information resources. I think the main criticism levied against Wikipedia is that of reliability since articles can be changed by anyone and thus factuality can be questionable. Essentially, Wikipedia as an open wiki is weak because it’s a free-for-all, lacking professional standards such as peer review and missing authoritative authors with topical expertise. Also, many articles are decidedly biased, and inaccurate information can linger. Hyperlinks embedded within articles can be deceiving; for example, if they link to an article behind a paywall, checking a reference can be difficult if not impossible. Overall, articles in open wikis like Wikipedia fail a quality analysis due to sketchy authority and ambiguous information content.

On the other hand, closed wikis are a different story, as are those wikis designed by professionals for a particular community of fellow professionals to consult for best practices (such as These types of wikis have the advantage of vetted authorship and articles written by practitioners in the respective field. More specifically, closed wikis can act as information repositories for institutions such as academic libraries. Library personnel could consult an in-house wiki for policies and procedures documents and training materials or use it to collect statistics and record problems with library services. The wiki’s information could be easily adapted to stay current with workflow changes; even more importantly, this type of in-house knowledge management system means that when staff leave or retire, their knowledge is not lost to the library, but instead preserved for future reference within the wiki. Too, all library personnel could contribute to the wiki, making it a powerful tool for team-building and buy-in to the library’s institutional goals.

Open wikis are different from closed wikis, but I think as information professionals we need to be better teachers of information literacy. Rather than condemning Wikipedia, why not take it seriously and explain to students how to evaluate this particular information resource using the CRAAP test? And wouldn’t librarians benefit personally and professionally from implementing workplace wikis for more effective long-term knowledge management? After learning about wikis, I realize that we need to treat them more seriously, especially as they’re here to stay in the information world.






7 thoughts on “Wikis Are Tricky

  1. I think that you are 100% right about Wikis being here to stay. They are definitely not going anywhere and will most likely expand. I was not able to find too much information regarding Chemipedia or Medipedia mentioned in the modules. It seems like they have not taken off in the way that Wikipedia has. I found Scholarpedia to be quite interesting. I like that it is a peer reviewed version of Wikipedia and that in order to write an article you must be deemed to be an authority figure on the subject. However, I think that for the vast majority users of Wikipedia this would be of no interest to them. They are looking for quick information about a topic, not a scholarly article. Wikis definitely appeal to the masses. While I am an avid Wiki reader I do find that after becoming a library science student I find myself analyzing the citation section. I recently edited my first Wiki articles for this class and it was a much easier process then I had imagined. However, for someone who values accurate information I wanted to make sure it was a topic I knew well. I do wish that you could see (or maybe you can and I have not found it) who the author of the article or portion of text is. I feel like that would help you decipher how accurate the knowledge is. However, that is not what Wikis are really about I suppose. It’s just a “simple” content management system with no defined owner that anyone can edit.

    I do like your idea of using them at work. I think that this would be a wonderful addition really anywhere but especially at a library. I would be interested to see how libraries have implemented them into their work place.

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    • I agree with your comment that wikis’ use in our lives will expand. And, yes, Wikipedia is absolutely appealing and satisfying to the layperson – to a certain extent it’s that “principle of least effort” theory we so often run into as library and information studies students. Congratulations on editing an actual article! I’ve not figured out how to access that information either, although supposedly you are able to see the editing history of articles. Too, I think you can anonymously edit articles, which does imply some ethical issues such as in the case of a politician, for example, who has a Wikipedia profile that is negatively edited by a person opposed to him/her. Yes, I would love to see some examples of wikis being used in libraries! In fact, having that resource would prevent a lot of stress for me as a new hire trying to learn workflow processes, procedures, policies, etc.


  2. I think that we are seeing a shift in the mindset of Wikis, at least it feels that way since I’ve started the SLIS program. In our research class, they weren’t used as primary research tools, but they were talked about, and I feel like people are coming to the realization that they are a tool to be used for its good. Much like the other social media tools, Facebook, Twitter, etc. finding a place in the academic world for these sorts of things is an ever-evolving process. Being in the Information Science field, we get to see it happening in real time, as our jobs pertain to this corralling of knowledge, and we are all contributing to this new research narrative as we go along.

    I think that teaching people about Wikis in libraries (maybe most particularly in academic libraries?) would be fun. An instructional class, or even a handout or pamphlet would be helpful in anyone using them for research purposes. I think anytime we assist in helping the public with research methods, they come away with more knowledge on how to access information all the time, throughout their lives. They would seek credible sources if they were taught to find them in the right way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You make such great points! I think wikis are also part of a generational transition, from more “one way or the highway” academic librarians to more flexible, open-minded librarians (dare I say us?) who have experienced firsthand the benefits of social software. I would love to incorporate wikis into info literacy instructional sessions!!! I read an article about how one women’s studies/history professor had her students in a women’s history class research Wikipedia articles about famous women for a particular historical era, only to find there were pretty slim pickings. These students then created their own articles about women achievers in that era to enrich Wikipedia, which I just thought was an amazing learning experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I totally agree with the concern about Wikis being a free for all. Heck, we can’t trust patrons to keep things “PG” on our community coloring page- how can we trust them with a wiki? They are definitely fun and a great way to get creative but it’s always a shortcut to the gutter XD

    Liked by 1 person

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