Reference works

I’m in two minds about the kids using Wikipedia as a reference.

On the one hand, it’s known to be a generally accurate source of information, with studies showing it can rival the big commercial encyclopaedias such as Britannica.

And I love the idea of the information in it being free, helping to spread knowledge without it being shackled by cost and commercial interests. Britannica has banner and pop-under ads, for heaven’s sake. Do I want my encyclopaedia splattered with adverts for horoscopes and the US Green Card Program? I don’t think so. (Though if you subscribe — A$69.95 per year — there are no ads.)

There’s little doubt that Wikipedia can be subject to vandalism or bias, depending on who edits the articles. You need to have your BS detection running constantly, just in case Stephen Colbert has fiddled with what you’re reading. But in most cases, problems get corrected reasonably quickly.

Obviously the key here is to verify what you read, to check against and use multiple sources. There’s other known generally reliable free sources online, too, such as the CIA World Fact Book, and the not-very-catchily-named Citizenium, which is subject to peer reviews before user-contributed articles are made public. A kind of Wikipedia with the screws tightened a bit, if you will.

And maybe it’s worth investing in a commercial encyclopaedia (something more up-to-date than the 7 year old copy of Encarta that I got way-back-when under that 100% rebate deal).

Certainly with Wikipedia becoming (I suspect) the dominant online reference work, it’ll be interesting to see where these types of publications go in future.

Whichever way it goes, learning to question and verify your sources is a vital part of any research, and something I’ll be encouraging the kids to do when they need to look up information on Wikipedia or elsewhere.


One measure of an online reference’s worth is how up to date it is. So, which entries on Australia have been updated with the election result? As of last night:

  • CIA World Factbookhead of government: Prime Minister John Winston HOWARD (since 11 March 1996); Deputy Prime Minister Mark VAILE (since 6 July 2005)Thumbs down!
  • CitizendiumAustralia’s current Head of government is Prime Minister John Howard of the Liberal Party. The opposition is the Labor Party, led by Kevin Rudd.Thumbs down!
  • WikipediaSince 3 December 2007, shortly after the 2007 election, the Labor Party led by the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been in power in Canberra …Thumbs up!
  • Britannica — Not listed on the free version of the Australia entry, but shown in a list of Australian Prime Ministers: Kevin Rudd Labor 2007-Thumbs up!
  • Encyclopedia.com — Most recent election referred to is 2004, and also refers to the outdated view that: There are four main political parties: Liberal, Labor, National, and Democratic.Thumbs down!
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6 Replies to “Reference works”

  1. Daniel
    very useful comparison.
    Where kids get their information is very different from when we were at school. Most of what I learned was gained from reading the graffiti on the toilet wall. Only joking.
    At least all these “instant sources” with all their contradictions and inaccuracies illustrate beautifully that you should always be sceptical and ensure you cross-reference everything.
    Rog.

  2. Wikipedia is good to get a general reference, if its a reliable source -not someone rambling on- there should be about 30,000,000 links at the bottom of the page.
    Get them to use wikipedia as a beginner, and then go elsewhere to back it up…

    However, as my Mum always says “you can never believe what you learn off the net”

    Also, school teachers love it if you can reference from books and websites.

  3. Wow Zoe! I feel old when peoples mums “always says” something about the net!

    Top article Daniel. I’ve never heard of Citizendium before. Of course by “verify what you read” you are not suggesting that one simply verify on these listed sites.

    I submit: If an alien were to come here from another planet and wanted to know who was leading Australia AND only checked these five sites, they may come to believe that Britannica was wrong and Wikipedia has be defaced!

    Of course, I know that’s not what you meant – one can most certainly start with a Wiki entry but Google is usually my first port of call.

    A Google search on Australia has the Wiki entry as number one followed by a tourism web site. Third on the list is the Australian Government homepage and I reckon they’d know who is leading the country.

    One should choose their search engine carefully too. Live search doesn’t have these three sites on their first page. Yahoo! does but they are prioritized differently and includes the CIA world factbook in the top three links.

    The way you research something will depend on what you are searching for. If I wanted to know the diet of Koalas then Wiki would be a great place to start, but if I wanted to find out what the 43rd most common baby name for boys in Western Australia in 2006 then Google will tell me it was Sebastian.

    I think Mum’s out there should start ‘always’ saying “don’t beleive everything you read” again. It makes better sense.

  4. I was in conversation with a colleague about both her son and my younger sister going into year eleven and being faced with difficult english texts. She said she’s going to get her son to read the Wikipedia synopsis of the texts (eg. of Othello or Macbeth) and *then* read the book, because then not only the plot but also the subtexts might be more apparent to him. She’s a trained teacher and has a PhD in history, so I’ll be suggesting the same idea to my sister…

  5. Daniel,
    Instead of buying a set of encyclopedias, the better bet is to use the local public library. They usually have several good up-to-date print reference sets as well as providing access to quite a veriety of reputable databases for free. Here in Bris, I can access the databases from home by using my library card number. Neat.

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