Hackaday tackled the infamous “online toaster hoax” where a group of friends decided to amend the Wikipedia article for the “inventor” of the electric toaster. Here’s an excerpt from the original BBC story:
On 6 February 2012, Alan was at a university lecture, when the class was warned against using Wikipedia as a source. To hammer the point home, the lecturer said that a friend of his – one “Maddy Kennedy” – had named himself on the site as the inventor of the toaster.
Alan and his classmates found the story “amusing” but pondered correcting the article – after all, one of Wikipedia’s distinguishing features is that pretty much anyone can edit it.
Sitting right next to Alan was one of his closest friends, Alex, who volunteered to do the editing himself. Alex recalls: “I just changed it so that it said that my friend, who sat next to me, Alan MacMasters, had in fact invented the toaster in Edinburgh in 1893.
“We had no idea who invented the toaster.”
Internet history had just been made, but Alan was not bothered.
“Alex is a bit of a joker, it’s part of why we love him,” he says. “The article had already been vandalised anyway, it was just changing the nature of the incorrect information. I thought it was funny, I never expected it to last.”via BBC
And Al Williams made a good point on why it might have lasted for so long and the idea of “common knowledge”:
Perhaps the takeaway, then, is that while Wikipedia isn’t always totally accurate, it is more likely to be accurate on things that get a lot of attention either because people are interested or there is a controversy. After all, when people noticed the Alan McMaster article, it did get resolved, and within 24 hours. But for a long time, no one was really looking at it.
If you get the start date of World War II or the age of a world leader, it is probably correct because people are paying attention. But the more obscure the information, the more probability that it hasn’t been looked over by enough people to be certain. The same probably applies to websites in general. While no one is perfect, you do tend to weigh information from known credible sources over information from some unknown quantity.
By all means, use Wikipedia for research but use the referenced sources for citations (after reading them and checking their referenced sources).