What Worth is Wikipedia?

The New York Times reports that the Middlebury College history department has banned citations to Wikipedia as a resource for papers and exams, after six students in a Japanese history class asserted an incorrect fact on an exam. The department did not ban use of Wikipedia, recognizing that doing so “would have been impractical, not to mention close-minded, because Wikipedia is simply too handy to expect students never to consult it.” I asked students today about their use of Wikipedia as a research tool. One rejected it categorically, because she is uncomfortable with a resource that can be so readily changed. Others were not aware of the “peer-production” aspects of Wikipedia. One student said Wikipedia was better than 15 bound encyclopedias because it is up-to-the-minute and conveys information on more topics. A few students described Wikipedia metaphorically as like a conversation with a friend who holds himself out as knowledgeable: it can be a good place to go for ideas and overall information, but should not be relied on as a sole source. They said that they investigate the sources Wikipedia cites before relying on any of it. How to determine whether an Internet source is reliable is another question, of course.

There are no conclusions to draw from these anecdotes. This classroom was not a cozy forum for a student to acknowledge Wikipedia as his or her sole source for academic knowledge.  Most students were quiet, and some may have wondered what the fuss is about.

I will continue to worry that too many people can’t distinguish between good and bad information, online and off. Wikipedia isn’t the cause, but it can be a symptom.

10 Replies to “What Worth is Wikipedia?”

  1. Carmon

    I’m impressed, I have to admit. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s both
    equally educative and amusing, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head.
    The issue is something which too few folks are speaking intelligently about.
    I’m very happy I found this during my search for something regarding this.

  2. brendanc

    Wikipedia is generally a reliable source for research, but it is not perfect. As with anything, not all of the information online can be taken for what it is, however, Wikipedia should be consulted as a research supplement. When used this way, it has been extremely useful for me when gathering information. I believe it is wrong for the school to entirely outlaw such a source that is so easy to use and provides up-to-date information. The burden of providing useful and relevant information should be placed on the individual student, not on Wikipedia. Students should be be in charge of deciphering what information is pertinent and given the opportunity to use Wikipedia as a research supplement.

  3. Daniel K

    This article brings up a good point, and it makes me realize the importance of the writing classes I took at BU. Both classes spent days talking about the validity of sources and the importance of each. Coming from a private high school, we were pretty much free to use whatever sources we wanted. Looking at this discussion makes me appreciate the changes that I adopted from my writing classesm here at Boston University, in the way I conduct research.

  4. awfulawful

    Having graduated from college more years ago than I like to admit, I am not particularly familiar with Wikipedia. I decided to do a little research (online of course), and I found the following:
    Wikipedia’s reliability and accuracy have been questioned. The site has also been criticised for its susceptibility to vandalism, uneven quality, systemic bias and inconsistencies, and for favouring consensus over credentials in its editorial process. Wikipedia’s content policies and sub-projects set up by contributors seek to address these concerns. Two scholarly studies have concluded that vandalism is generally short-lived and that Wikipedia is roughly as accurate as other online encyclopedias.

    That’s a description of Wikipedia, from Wikipedia. On a side-note, that’s some fantastic self-promotion. At my next job interview, I’m going to tell the interviewer that I am roughly as good as the other candidates.

  5. vee87

    In answer to your first question, jtannhau, on some articles, Wikipedia has a “References” section, but I’m not sure about their reliability.

    My writing professor last year, on whom Wikipedia has an article, continuously warned the class about the website’s unreliability by citing mistakes in the article about him. As for my usage of the website for research, I use it as a starting point to find ideas; then I research (and confirm) the ideas in other, more reliable sources.

  6. jtannhau

    Does wikipedia ever cite its sources? Where does it get all of its information from? I’m just curious because obviously several people have found the information on wikipedia to be false. Is there a post or disclaimer somewhere ont he website saying they are not responsible for any false information? Or would the liability just vanish under the first amendment? If its credibility has been questioned on so many accounts, why are people still using it?

  7. JesseR

    The last time I checked, we (and Middlebury students) are “college” students at prestigious universities. I don’t know the last time I used an encyclopedia as a source in any kind of paper, three pages or thirty. Students should be using primary and secondary sources in academic works, and Wikipedia is neither. Wikipedia is a wonderful distraction, and I’m sure it contains many true and accurate facts, but as an encyclopedia it has no place in the bibliographies of scholarly works.

  8. tinasaj

    I also remember in high school and even in college teachers like to limit the number of online sources (not just Wikipedia) for research papers and what not. What I find interesting however, is that online sources are becoming increasingly popular and powerful at the expense of some industries, like the newspaper industry. With declining revenues, some companies are soon to be bankrupt and who knows maybe in the future, the only sources we can actually use are internet sites because the entire print industry will have dissapeared.

  9. mfrey12

    I can completely understand why a college would ban Wikipedia as an academic source. However, I do feel like Wikipedia has a lot of value. It’s pretty reliable for getting a quick summary of something completely random. If I see or hear of something interesting, I frequently do a quick search on Wikipedia to get some background information. For example, today I saw an article about a giant squid being found somewhere near Antarctica. I was interested and I don’t know much about squids so Wikipedia was quite helpful. For situations like this, Wikipedia is a pretty good source to use. The facts on the website don’t REALLY need to be exact to provide background information, but if I was about write a research paper on squids I would not use Wikipedia…There is too much of a negative connotation that is associated with it.

  10. bsanthan

    As long as I’ve been in school, every teacher has told me to not accept Wikipedia as a source for a paper or anything. But for a college to ban the use of it for papers and exams is kind of crazy I think. I don’t think that it’s a reliable source either but they also can’t say what people can use as a source and what they can’t use.

    I no longer use wikipedia just because my teachers wouldn’t accept it as a source in high school.

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