“Wikipedia is not a source” has become a familiar refrain in academic settings — but that doesn’t stop many students, and professors, from referencing the crowd-sourced encyclopedia on a daily basis.
Founded more than 10 years ago in January of 2001, Wikipedia has revolutionized the way people access information across the world. The website, hosted by the non-profit organization Wikimedia Foundation Inc., receives on average more than 530,000 page requests per hour and is one of the top 10 most visited Internet sites. Wikipedia’s English language encyclopedia covers more than 3.75 million topics, and the site is available in 270 languages.
What makes Wikipedia unique, while academically suspect, is its open edit model. All articles are written collaboratively by a large group of anonymous and unpaid volunteers. This idea that anyone can edit an article has been the basis of the “Wikipedia is not a source” mantra that pervades classrooms.
However, not all scholars agree that Wikipedia is taboo in academia. Barry Fishman, associate professor in the School of Education and the School of Information expects his students to use Wikipedia as a starting point for research.
“It used to be that academics would kind of sneer at Wikipedia. We’d want something that was peer reviewed. Turns out it is peer reviewed. There’s just many, many more peers,” Fishman said. “Scholars don’t really use encyclopedias anyway, but a lot of students may start with an encyclopedia.”
Jason Daida, associate research scientist in the University’s Space Physics Research Laboratory and a lecturer in atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences, says that Wikipedia can be useful as a first step in research, but should not be a final source for an academic paper.
“It’s good to get a first reconnaissance, figure out what’s there, but when it comes down to writing the paper, writing stuff, you take it with a grain of salt,” Daida said. “We don’t recognize it as something that’s citable.”
Many University students are used to routine speeches from instructors who forbid the use of Wikipedia as a source in papers. LSA sophomore George Tam said he uses it as a base of information before diving into more official research.
“I don’t trust it as much as the other searches that come up. I never use it formally,” Tam said.
LSA sophomore Ashley Godin said she mostly uses Wikipedia to look up information unrelated to her classes.
“I’ll be looking at something on it, but then I’ll try and go find another source,” Godin said. “If it’s random stuff not related to anything academic, then I’ll look at it.”
Even Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales agrees that the online encyclopedia is not a citable source. He said in a 2005 interview with Business Week that “people shouldn’t be citing encyclopedias in the first place.”
Wale’s interview followed a controversy about a study published in Nature Magazine in 2005 that found Wikipedia’s rate of error was only slightly greater than Encyclopedia Britannica’s — a finding that Encyclopedia Britannica contested but Nature refused to retract. One of Wale’s stated goals for Wikipedia is for the website to become as accurate as Britannica or better.
One look at the current most visited pages on Wikipedia should reassure educators that the majority of the encyclopedia’s users aren’t students looking for a quick source. The top 10 list includes articles connected to trending topics in news like the recent death of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, “404-Errors,” “Facebook,” “Sex” and “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” — all unlikely topics for an academic research paper.
Wikipedia has several systems to address and prevent misinformation. Editors — Wikipedia’s term for anyone who writes or adds to the site’s articles — can report articles for offenses related to accuracy and writing style. Disputes over articles can then be hashed out in Wikipedia’s internal forums, a process which may require arbitration by one of about 1,500 administrators or editors who have achieved a high position through the approval of their peers on Wikipedia. The encyclopedia has an Arbitration Committee of volunteer editors and administrators with the power to ban users and regulate more serious violations of Wikipedia’s code.
“The idea that there are lots of people working on lots of articles that are of interest to them is important, and it creates — in the end — value that is of equal worth to more carefully, let’s say more deliberately, curated kinds of resources,” Fishman said.
While Wikipedia is, by definition, a work in progress, it remains a valuable and free source of information for millions of people around the world. It contains more than 50 times as many words as the next largest English language encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Britannica.
This mass production of information is a relatively new form of documenting, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. The term “crowdsourcing” refers to a collective and democratic effort to accomplish a task traditionally performed by one person. The word was first used in an article in Wired Magazine about the phenomenon five years after Wikipedia began, but now it is commonly used to refer to the collective information gathering which makes Wikipedia and similar projects possible.
While Daida is not enthusiastic about his students using Wikipedia in academic projects, he uses a Wiki database when he teaches Engineering 100: Engineering Design in the Real World. In the class, students work in teams on projects that aim to improve quality of life. The searchable database contains all project reports from the class since 2002. It uses the same algorithm as Wikipedia and crowdsources project ideas so students can continue to projects from previous semesters without repeating other students’ work or ideas.
“They have a very positive way to look at what people have done, to build or enhance what people have done for their own project,” he said. “It’s much more what I expect of a committee of scholars. You do a reference look-up, you cite what’s been done before. You follow what trends are most appealing.”
Fishman also said he uses crowdsourcing in his classroom. For each of his classes, he makes an openly editable Google Document so he and his students can create a set of master notes together. Students are encouraged to include information from outside sources, including Wikipedia.
“Frequently in my classes, as we are talking about topics — people mention some theorist, or some article or some idea — and someone will post a Wikipedia link into our discussion logs,” Fishman said.
Fishman added that crowdsourcing technology is only as powerful as the people who use it.
“It doesn’t make sense to me to ask questions about whether things like Wikipedia are good or bad for student learning,” Fishman said. “It’s all about what you do with them. I think there are lots of people inventing lots of great ways to use these tools, including students.”