Take Things Easy and Chill Out, But Wait….

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Just I was about to take things a bit easy and chill out, the second assignment crept in. Nowadays my days won’t seem to be normal if I’m not busy. This time I have to write a full technical report covering a certain topic and due in about three weeks time.

As a student, I always have the doubt of whether one day I will really become a professional engineer. And after two months studying here, I’m very sure that I’m going to be one provided that I can survive every term without failing anything. Being a student here has certainly introduced me to a lot of engineering practices, one of them being researching for information.

In one of the session with my tutor, I’ve been told that we are not encouraged to refer to Wikipedia or websites like HowStuffWorks when trying to figure out something. Those websites are only useful when we really understand something and there’s a missing ‘piece’ that we need to fill in. Or, is that so?

Well, I agree with that up to a point. Open source websites like Wikipedia certainly have their downsides, as they can be edited by everyone. By the same token, the articles have the potential to be reviewed by the entire world’s experts too. However, it would be too optimistic to have the thought that every article in Wikipedia is being reviewed by experts and professionals from every field. Also, open source sites are often subjected to hoax pages and manipulation of facts for personal as well as political gains. So, how do we know if Wikipedia is as credible as established sources like Nature and New Scientist? But, can we really generalize the quality of all the entries and articles based on these problems?

As an engineer-going-to-be, I’m currently interested in the quality of the science entries only. A few years ago, an expert-led investigation was carried out by the well-respected scientific journal Nature to compare the coverage of science in Encyclopedia Britannica and that in Wikipedia. Interestingly, they are the first to use the peer review technique – a system that is extensively relied upon and being used by the scientists to decide which research result can be published in a scientific journal.

From that, out of the 42 entries tested, Nature’s investigation team found out that the average mistakes per article for Britannica is 2.92 and 3.86 for Wikipedia. The investigation had shown that the difference in accuracy was not really that great, at least when it comes to the science entries. Of course, we can always argue that the 42 randomly selected entries is really nothing when compared to the massive amount of information in Wikipedia, is the sample size really big enough to represent the whole population of science entries in it?

People often have the perception that expert-based encyclopedias are always better and more reliable than some open-access encyclopedias written by unpaid writers. Encyclopedias written by paid experts are certainly much more accurate than some unknown editor on the web, right? Isn’t that common sense? (But, what do they say about common sense? As Albert Einstein famously put it, “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen” =D). Also, it can be dangerous to assume there’s no error in the well-established encyclopedias, like ‘It’s in Britannica, it must be true’ while undermining other open source websites.

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