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 https://www.libsuccess.org/Library_Success:_A_Best_Practices_Wiki). 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.