How Wikipedia stacked up against subscription databases

Stephen Francouer writes:

My Plan
Do quick look ups of nineteen terms and concepts discussed in Clay Shirky’s book
Here Comes Everybody to see what reference sources would be more helpful to the students I work with.

Using quotation marks around search terms to force phrase searches, I looked in the following resources:

  • Wikipedia
  • Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Gale Virtual Reference Library
  • Oxford Reference

In any given set of search results, I would look first for main entries that mirrored my search terms exactly and record any such precise hits in a table. If there were no exact hits, then I looked for any entries in which most of my search terms were in the main entry (such as an entry on “social network services” when I searched for “social networks”). If none of my search words were in the main entry, then I looked for entries in which the search words appeared in the body of the entry and were adequately defined and explained (as opposed to simply cited or referenced in an offhand way).


As you can see from the updated
table of results, Wikipedia and Gale Virtual Reference Library both do pretty well and Encyclopedia Britannica fared the worst.

Take a look at the results and the rest of Stephen’s post. For emerging thinking, a discussion of newer terms or a clearinghouse of links for that new read, Wikipedia may be a useful resource. For example, reading the entry for “radical transparency” might be a good first step for exploring the concept.

9 thoughts on “How Wikipedia stacked up against subscription databases”

  1. Gale Virtual Reference Library is not a database, per se. It is a customizable collection of eBook reference titles. Thus, the quality of the search results would vary depending in what titles a particular library purchased for the GVRL collection.
    I’d have to assess the original article before I could pass an informed judgment on this research.

  2. Fantastic. Love it when people follow their questions and get answers. Everything is reference. And questions almost always lead to more questions -unless you ask your Mom&Dad for an allowance.

  3. The issue with Wikipedia is not what they have entries on. There is no doubt they have entries on items that encyclopedias wouldn’t bother with, and they may have entries on subjects that encyclopedias should cover. The issue with Wikipedia is authority. Any resource that can be altered at any point in time will always remain unreliable. Do you want your neurosurgeons citing Wikipedia in their papers?

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