By Alistair Coleman
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has said teachers who refuse younger students access to the site are "bad educators".
Jimmy Wales says students should be able to cite Wikipedia
Speaking at the Online Information conference at London's Olympia, he played down the long-running controversy over the site's authority.
He said young students should be able to reference the online encyclopaedia in their work.
Mr Wales said the site, which is edited by users, should be seen as a "stepping stone" to other sources.
As long as an article included accurate citations, he said he had "no problem" with it being used as a reference for younger students, although academics would "probably be better off doing their own research".
"You can ban kids from listening to rock 'n' roll music, but they're going to anyway," he added. "It's the same with information, and it's a bad educator that bans their students from reading Wikipedia."
In 2005, at the height of the controversy over the site's accuracy, Mr Wales told the BBC that students who copied information from Wikipedia "deserved to get an F grade".
Mr Wales said the website still lacked the authority to be used as a citeable source for college-aged and university students.
But he said new editing and checking procedures had made Wikipedia more trustworthy.
Since the controversy, in which it emerged that the "free editing" policy had allowed articles containing inaccuracies and bias to appear, the site has introduced a system of real-time peer review, in which volunteers check new and updated articles for accuracy and impartiality.
Despite advances in technology, there are no plans to automate this process. "There is no substitute for peer critique," Mr Wales told delegates.
Volunteers check Wikipedia entries for inaccuracies and bias
It is this perceived lack of authority that has drawn criticism from other information sources. Ian Allgar of Encyclopaedia Britannica maintains that, with 239 years of history and rigorous fact-checking procedures, Britannica should remain a leader in authoritative, politically-neutral information.
Mr Allgar pointed out the trustworthy nature of paid-for, thoroughly-reviewed content, and noted that Wikipedia is still prone to vandalism.
But Britannica and Wikipedia should not be seen as direct competitors. Wikipedia, he said, had made the use of encyclopaedias "trendy and popular" with young people, which could only benefit Britannica's subscription-led service.
Jimmy Wales also said that the Free Software Foundation would be rolling out a new version of its free documentation licence, which Wikipedia may adopt.
Although Wikipedia allows users to copy, modify and redistribute information, commercially or non-commercially, the new licensing regime, based on the existing Creative Commons scheme, would "bring Wikipedia into line with the rest of the free content culture", if adopted.
Mr Wales reiterated his commitment to keeping the Wikimedia Foundation free of corporate sponsorship, and of major donors who might want control of online information.
"We are the Red Cross for information. We won't sell out to Google," he said.
The foundation is, however, expanding into the search function, with July's announcement of the Wikia search facility which combines open-source searching and social networking.
"This is a political statement against proprietary-driven software tools," Mr Wales said. "Wiki wants to give people the maximum freedom to do good."
BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad.