student use of the wikipedia

Ah, another round of this discussion – how should we react when students cite the Wikipedia in papers? I used to say no, you can’t, not unless the fact that it’s the Wikipedia is the point of your argument. Then I eased up a bit, but after spending the last couple of weeks editing the Wikipedia a fair bit, I’m disillusioned (though still in love with the thing) and feeling strict again.

A few months ago, Alan Liu sent out a draft of guidelines for students wanting to use the wikipedia, which just reached Fibreculture. Alan gives two main reasons to be careful quoting the Wikipedia:

  1. As in the case of any encyclopedia, Wikipedia is not
    appropriate as the primary or sole reference for anything that is central to an
    argument, complex, or controversial.
  2. The Wikipedia is of uneven quality, some articles are contested and frequently vandalised, and because its constantly changing, if you do cite it, you absolutely have to include the date you referenced it.

I mostly agree, so far, and am especially glad to see the first point – really, encyclopedias aren’t sufficient references for research papers, whether they’re the Encyclopedia Britannica or the Wikipedia – but there are other issues Alan Liu doesn’t cover that have become more and more foregrounded to me in the last weeks while I’ve been editing the Wikipedia:

  1. The stylecumulative editing encourages articles that become lists of trivia instead of coherent presentations of a subject. Nicholas Carr demonstrates this in his piece “The Amorality of Web 2.0” using the entry for Bill Gates and for Jane Fonda, showing how they’re both, to be honest, rubbish. (They’ve been improved somewhat since he wrote this).

    I’ve been working some on the lonelygirl15 article in the last weeks, and it certainly suffers under this. Lonelygirl15 is a current, pop culture, technological event and so a prime example of where the Wikipedia shines. The Wikipedia entry is clearly the most comprehensive online – newspapers articles don’t try to tell the WHOLE story, and blog posts are even more fragmentary. A very large number of people helped write (are still writing) the article and there’s a lot of activity on the talk page. But because everyone wanted to add something, the article has a lot of that “list of trivia” quality to it. The discussions about writing the entry are really rather dysfunctional – the “talk” page for the article is just another wiki page and despite conventions about how to show threads of an argument and so on the interface isn’t ideal for organising a discussion.

  2. Accuracy. Alan Liu mentions this, but I think it’s a bigger problem than he really suggests. While in a sense the lonelygirl15 article is a good example of a mostly accurate entry, despite its other flaws, accuracy is a particularly large problem for specialised articles where no experts have been involved – and often students go to these articles. I can’t tell what the accuracy of “nuclear fusion” is like, but for specialised articles where I’m an expert I see a whole lot of flaws.

    For instance, the article about “ergodic literature” really sucks and would directly mislead students – a couple of weeks ago it largely consisted of a list of “examples” that quite obviously are NOT ergodic literature. Looking at the “talk” page for the article it’s clear that nobody editing the article had actually read the book where the concept is introduced and defined – editors were saying hey, look, I found something by this Aarseth geezer online that says it’s the first chapter of a book about this, someone should read it and integrate it into the article. Having read the book and taught the topic, I put an hour or two’s work into trying to fix up the entry, but writing a good solid encyclopedia article is a LOT of work, and it’s really not in proper shape yet. I did at least put a tag on it showing that it’s not accurate – that’s one great thing about the Wikipedia, there are lots of ways of showing that an article is contested, or inaccurate, or unsourced, or incomplete. danah boyd wrote once that as an undergrad she contributed lots of articles to the Wikipedia simply based on excerpts from her first year sociology textbooks – a lot of the articles sure read like that’s what happened.

20. September 2006 by Jill

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