Great piece from American Journalism Review on the use of Wikipedia as an official source, both in academia and journalism:
There’s no unanimity about Wikipedia among academic experts, who have engaged in vigorous debates about the online encyclopedia. While many professors refuse to allow students to cite it, it has attracted some prominent defenders, including historians and scientists who have analyzed its content.
‘If a journalist were to find something surprising on Wikipedia and the journalistic instincts suggested it was correct, the journalist might add that as an unsubstantiated Wiki-fact and invite comment,’ says Cathy Davidson, a professor at Duke University and cofounder of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, www.hastac.org), a network of researchers developing new ways to collect and share information via technology. ‘Perhaps an online version of the printed piece, for example, might include a blog inviting people to comment on the Wiki-fact. It may be that there would be Wiki-facts online that were not in the printed piece. In other words, why not use the new technologies available to expand knowledge in all kinds of ways?’
Journalists also should consider, Davidson says, whether some of the sources they deem reliable have their own inadequacies. For example, when she recently researched the origins of calculus, she found that standard Western histories generally credited England’s Isaac Newton and Germany’s Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. But Wikipedia went much furtherfurther, tracing the discovery of basic calculus functions back to the Egyptians in 1800 BC, and then to China, India and Mesopotamia — all hundreds of years before the Europeans.
So while journalists should be cautious no matter what resources they use, “What Wikipedia does reveal to those in the Euro-American world is knowledge which most of our sources, even the most scholarly, have, in the past, neglected because it did not fit in our intellectual genealogies, in our history of ideas,” Davidson says.
In December 2005, the science journal Nature published a survey of several experts about the content of comparable Wikipedia and online Encyclopedia Britannica entries. In a conclusion hotly disputed by Britannica, Nature said that Wikipedia “comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries,” in that the average Wikipedia article contained four errors to Britannica’s three. Britannica’s 20-page response said that “almost everything about the journal’s investigation…was wrong and misleading…the study was so poorly carried out and its findings so error-laden that it was completely without merit.” The company further asserted that Nature had misrepresented its own data — its numbers, after all, showed that Wikipedia had a third more inaccuracies than Britannica — and asked for “a full and public retraction of the article.” Nature stood by its story.
This a good debate. Wikipedia is often deeper and more accurate and because it’s not controlled by one set group of editors.