The claim

“I consulted the most reliable source known to modern politicians – Wikipedia.”

Steve Webb MP, pensions minister, House of Commons, 2008

The background

Can we live without Wikipedia? The venerable Time magazine says we will be “helpless” today as the free, user generated online encyclopaedia stages a blackout.

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, was gracious enough to give students a heads-up on Monday: “Student warning! Do your homework early. Wikipedia protesting bad law on Wednesday!”, he tweeted.

But it seems it’s not just students that rely on the website. The Liberal Democrat MP Steve Webb once described it in the Commons as “the most reliable source known to modern politicians”.

Here at FactCheck HQ we’re slightly bemused. Do people rely that heavily on Wikipedia? And if so, should they?

Wiki-readers from the Houses of Parliament to the House of God

Many a reference to Wikipedia has been made in Parliament. In the Lords, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts once called it an “essential support for a back-bench member of your Lordships’ House”.

Yet, while Wikipedia is quoted, its credibility is often queried. Lord Foulkes of Cumnock admitted: “I am not sure if that is the best source, but it is correct on this occasion”.

And in the Scottish parliament, Former MSP Hugh O’Donnell expressed concerns that the rise of online media would see more people relying on Wikipedia “as opposed to the Oxford printed version”.

The Vatican itself came under fire last year for using Wikipedia to produce biographies of 22 new cardinals – it was a bit of give away that many were described as “Catholic”. A Vatican spokesman said that they were temporary, produced in a rush and have since been replaced with official biographies.

What’s clear is that while it’s used in high places, Wikipedia is not taken for gospel.

Why should we doubt Wikipedia?

Wikipedia itself admits that it’s not 100 per cent accurate – because, except in certain cases where entry is restricted to prevent vandalism, “anyone with internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles”.

It has 100,000 active contributors, who are largely anonymous and who don’t get paid. But according to the website, that’s its appeal. Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales describes the site as a “humanitarian project to bring a free encyclopaedia to every single person on the planet”.

Well so far, it reaches 400m people a month – 33 per cent of the globe’s internet users, as you can see from our graphic. It is the world’s fifth most popular website, behind Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo.  And unlike a printed encyclopaedia it is updated constantly.

Wikipedia vs Encyclopaedia Britannica

Wikipedia calls itself an encyclopaedia, but it has some way to go before gaining a reputation in the realms of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The Centre for Brand Analysis (TCBA) has named Britannica as the number one media reference company in the UK, followed by Oxford University Press, Collins, Michelin Travel Guides and Maps, and Cambridge University Press.

Overall, Britannica and Oxford Uni Press were the only two in their category to make it into the top 100 most respected ‘superbrands’ (30th and 74th place respectively).

Wikipedia meanwhile, which is classed not as a media reference group but as a website, joined the “superbrands survey” in 2011 – the results of which are out in February.

However, Stephen Cheliogis, chief executive of TCBA, told FactCheck: “To give you a steer, Encyclopaedia Britannica is still heading the list. Wikipedia only just sneaks into the top 100 but Encyclopaedia Brittanica has clearly got the heritage which has a big impact on trust, and faith.”

Indeed, Britannica has been going since 1768. A spokesman told us it has 4,000 expert contributors including the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former US President Bill Clinton and our very own Tony Blair.

He said that Bill Clinton has written about  the Dayton Accords, which brought to an end bloodshed in the Balkans; Mr Clinton was a signatory of  those very Accords.

All the contributors are all edited at the group’s HQ in Chicago. The spokesman told FactCheck: “Wikipedia is a great starting point, where it differs however is that it can be written by anyone with a political or religious agenda. We stand by our editorial process.”

He also pointed out that the Encyclopaedia is “age appropriate”, written to a level appropriate for children, and which they can understand.

What do the experts say?

Perhaps they’re afraid of getting lampooned on their Wiki profiles, but there’s surprisingly little expert research on the accuracy of Wikipedia.

The scientific journal Nature conducted a study in 2005 that found that the number of “factual errors, omissions or misleading statements” in Wikipedia was 162 compared with 123 in Britannica.

More recently in 2010, cancer researchers from Thomas Jefferson University compared oncology information on Wikipedia with that on the National Cancer Institute’s Physician Data Query (PDQ), which is peer-reviewed and edited. Both were checked against text books.

Dr Yaacov Lawrence, who led the research, said: “Reassuringly, we found that errors were extremely rare on Wikipedia. But the way information was presented on PDQ is more patient-friendly”.

He said PDQ was written in plain English which even children could understand, while Wikipedia was deemed “at a level suitable for a college student”.  The study said Wikipedia’s “lack of readability may reflect its varied origins and haphazard editing”.

The editors of the reference guides For Dummies say Wikipedia does have some glaring weaknesses. Firstly, there’s no guarantee that important subjects are included or given the right treatment. Entries are often incomplete or in the midst of being updated. And the writers often “fail to cite their original sources”, which makes it hard to check the credibility of the piece.

None of this should stop you using Wikipedia, said Dan Woods and Peter Thoeny from For Dummies. “Just weigh the limitations of Wikipedia – and, for that matter, reference works in general”.

The verdict

Wikipedia defends itself with a list of what it is not. It says it is not a dictionary, a directory, a manual, guidebook, textbook or a scientific journal.

It is not a paper encyclopaedia but a “digital encyclopaedia project” – which means its results will constantly change, and while some articles might be clear and concise, others could be opinionated and disputed.

Wikipedia  does not commission experts, such as the likes of Bill Clinton and Archbishop Tutu,  to contribute as Encyclopaedia Britannica does. And it if did, it would have no one to edit them to ensure their viewpoint is fair. It can be written by anyone with an internet connection – who contributes for free and is usually anonymous.

Wikipedia itself accepts that it is not always accurate. And once you accept founder Jimmy Wales’ definition of Wikipedia as “a unique human project, the first of its kind in history”, it becomes harder to abuse its reliability. Especially when the handful of studies that have been done show that it is largely accurate.

So it might not be the “most” reliable source for politicians – we’d advise checking the facts – but it’s highly likely it will be the most up-to-date source.

The trick is to use it as a starting point, be aware of the pitfalls and never take it for gospel.

By Emma Thelwell