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.

18 thoughts on “student use of the wikipedia

  1. steve

    I discourage Wikipedia as a source, but I discourage bound and printed encyclopedias for the same reason: reference books are useful for pointing toward more comprehensive sources, but shouldn’t be relied on as a final word. So I’m no more willing to accept Britannica as a source than Wikipedia. If students begin with an encyclopedia then move on to the references that listing mentions, great. But no encyclopedia offers enough information to be comprehensive enough for a decent academic paper.

  2. Jill

    Yes, exactly, Steve.

  3. steve

    Which is pretty much exactly what you’d written above, I realize now that I’m awake. Oops!

  4. Jill

    Oh, did my comment sound harsh? It was written in a friendly tone, not a corrective one, though now I reread it it seems kind of teacherly impatient. Sorry. Anyway, I meant to express that YES! And I’m glad to see I’m not the only one doesn’t think encyclopedia’s are good sources for student papers – more and more students seem convinced htye are, anyway…

  5. vika

    Maybe a good exercise for students wishing to use Wikipedia is a requirement to add something of substance to each article they reference, OR to point out in their paper where the article is wrong/incomplete?

  6. steve

    Oh, no, not harsh at all!

    One thing I ask students to do with wikipedia (and other sources) is to evaluate how much it encourages conversation — some entries offer no references or supporting sources, and other entries are quite rigorous. That way, I don’t feel like I’m throwing away the genuine value of wikipedia at the same time I’m not pretending its perfect. So it isn’t just about citing the date, but also considering the relative usefulness of each article.

  7. Jill

    I agree that helping students learn to evaluate the wikipedia is really important – I don’t know that I’d want to ask each student to add something, Vika, because, oh dear, what nonsense some might add, but considering which articles are good and which could do with improvement is probably the sort of basic skill that they’ll need and be able to build upon in considering future as yet unknown sources…

  8. nick

    Wikipedia is not supposed to contain any original research, and practically everything it cites is online. So aside from questions of quality and versions and such, why would it generally be appropriate to cite a Wikipedia article, and not from that article’s original sources, when writing a research paper?

    Unless, of course, it’s the sort of article that Wikipedia was born to produce.

  9. Jill

    I agree, Nick, given the Wikipedia is at least in good cases good at citing its sources, students (and the rest of us) should use it as a starting point among several ways of finding those primary sources… Some articles are indeedclearly meannt for the Wikipedia 🙂

  10. Bradley Wentworth

    As an undergrad student, I have never cited Wikipedia though I can think of many situations where it would be appropriate. If I had to provide relevant background information in an inter-disciplinary context Wikipedia would be helpful; for example, an art history paper mentioning the golden ratio: ‘the mathematicl definition can be expressed as… examples in nature include…’ (cite Wikipedia).

    Wikipedia may be creeping its way into academia. Every professor I have asked considers the Economist to generally be a scholarly source. The Economist has cited Wikipedia (see issue Jan 5, 2006, article Bayes rules; figure 1. Not available for free online unfortunately but let me know if you want a copy.)

    In response to Nick and in reference to my original example, check out the article on the Golden Ratio in Wikipedia. It has 33 references, all of which seem to be either books or ancient documents – there are no websites. There are some gaps but they are fairly clearly marked. The vast conglomeration of Wikipedia’s mathematics and physics articles have been far more useful (and neutral, in terms of notation/nomenclature) to me as a student than the average textbook and I may one day cite one of them. I do think it is often appropriate to cite a definition in a research paper. Consider the word ‘derivative’, for example.

    In my opinion, there is far too much emphasis on the brand or medium of a source and too little on teaching us students how to discern the actual quality of an individual article/book/chapter/website/interview/radio broadcast etc. Strictly, citing Wikipedia when making a side reference to something like the Golden Ratio may not be as ‘academic’ as referring to ‘Euclid, Elements, Book 6, Proposition 30’ etc. However, if I were an Art History prof I would say Wikipedia is the more pragmatic source, and give kudos to the student for finding such a good article.

  11. Jill

    Thank you for your considered comment, Bradley. Alan Liu’s proposed guidelines would actually allow the kind of use of an encyclopedia that you’re describing, I think – facts about the golden ratio are non-controversial, fairly straight-forward and don’t require a lot of analysis, critical thought or evaluation – and presumably a supporting point to your argument rather than the main point of your paper. Here’s the full text of Liu’s point 1, which is not as black and white as “never ever ever ever cite 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. “Central to an argument” means that the topic in question is crucial for the paper. (For example, a paper _about_ Shakespeare or postmodernism cannot rely on an encyclopedia article on those topics.) “Complex” means anything requiring analysis, critical thought, or evaluation. (For example, it is not persuasive to cite an encyclopedia on “spirituality.”) “Controversial” means anything that requires listening to the original voices in a debate because no consensus or conventional view has yet emerged. (For example, cite an encyclopedia on the historical facts underlying a recent political election, but not on the meaning or trends indicated by that election.)

    These limitations are due to the fact that encyclopedia articles are second- or third-hand summaries. They are excellent starting points for learning about something. But a college-level research paper or critical essay needs to consult directly the articles, books, or other sources mentioned by an encyclopedia article and use those as the reference. The
    best such sources are those that have been refereed (“peer-reviewed” by other scholars before acceptance for publication, which is the case for most scholarly journals and books) or, in the case of current events,
    journalistic or other resources that are relatively authoritative in their field.

    However, a Wikipedia citation can be an appropriate convenience when the point being supported is minor, non-controversial, or also supported by other evidence.

    In addition, Wikipedia is an appropriate source for some extremely recent topics (especially in popular culture or technology) for which it provides the sole or best available synthetic, analytical, or historical discussion.

  12. Sheila

    Yes, I think the key thing is to encourage them to approach each item critically, rather than having a checklist “journal article always good, wikipedia always bad”. The wikipedia “information management” entry is poorl – though actually I’m sort of hoping it stays that way because we are running a new “inquiry in information management” module next semester for our first year IM students and critiquing the entry, and possibly improving it, will be a nice activity. On the other hand I’ve put the wikipedia “Peer review” entry on their resource list for their sem 1 Information Literacy class as it seems quite good to me and is less dauntingly worded than some of the descriptions aimed at researchers.

    BTW I’ve just had an email round about World University Network student exchanges between Bergen and Sheffield (where I am), reminded me to look at your blog….

  13. Jill

    I like the approach of finding GOOD wikipedia articles and using them – and critiquing (possibly improving, though I’d be wary of requiring Wikipedia edits given not all students are necessarily going to be useful Wikipedia editors) the not-so good. I’m teaching ICT & learning in a few weeks, and will definitely work in a session on the Wikipedia, so like al these tips.

    Sheila, I just had a look at your program in Sheffield, and it looks really interesting – I’m going to talk to our student advisor about what the World University Network is (haven’t heard of it, maybe was one of those emails I just skimmed…) – an exchange might be great!

  14. Kenneth

    It occurs to me that this is ultimately a discussion about power or to put it in simpler terms a game of Top Trumps. If an academic accepts citations from wikipedia then who will bother looking up that paper they wrote, which was peer-reviewed in that international journal? If that academic contributes to wikipedia to correct/contribute to an entry it would be viewed as devaluing their knowledge and undermining their credibility amongst the other academics because it’s not part of the established structure for distributing academic knowledge.

    Ultimately the academic is in the position of power telling students what is and is not acceptable. They are the recognised “experts” and they know the truth. Wikipedia challenges the status quo and academics don’t like that. After all, why pay for a professor if wikipedia end up being more accurate?

  15. Jill

    Huh? I hadn’t realised that when I contribute to the Wikipedia I’m “devaluing their knowledge and undermining their credibility amongst the other academics”. How did you get that idea? And if all we wanted from professor was encyclopedic summaries of certain topics I assume teachers, professors, universities and schools would have disappeared when the printing press was invented – or at least when the first encyclopedias were published.

  16. Kenneth

    Would a book publisher pay an academic for a textbook, when the majority of the content could be found on the academics website?

    If an academic only published to the internet would there work have the same credibility amongst the academic community as if the work was published in peer-reviewed journals?

  17. Jessica

    Thanks for your thoughts on the subject. I’m a high school English teacher, so my primary objectives are to get students thinking critically about the reliability of sources and to dip their toes in the ocean of research strategies. I’m reluctant to completely ban a source like Wikipedia because I believe that wikis by nature can only improve with greater use; nonetheless, misinformation is a major concern. I respect your criticism, especially given the nature of your own research interests.

  18. Kristine

    Thanks for a interesting read.

    In regards to using Wikipedia in academic work: The legitimacy of using Wikipedia also depends on the topic. Ofcourse you cannot base a paper around wiki referances, but I think wikis can make for good footnotes. If you wish to talk about an example, but dont have space in the paper (or it would seem unnatural to do so) to explain it in detail.
    Especially for things that are as you say current, like the lonelygirl15. Not everything will have a “proper” citation to show readers in the right direction if they want to learn more.

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