Are we using Wikipedia too much?

Is there anyone left out there who hasn’t used Wikipedia? As a casual reference–let’s say, “How many seasons was Friends on the air?” or “When/why did Borders bookstore go out of business?”–Wikipedia can be a great tool. When you search a question or topic on any popular search engine–Google, Bing, or Yahoo–Wikipedia is generally one of the top hits listed on the results page. According to Wikipedia (haha–yes! There is a Wikipedia page about Wikipedia), the free-access internet encyclopedia is the “sixth most popular website” on the internet and it gets “nearly 500 million unique visitors each month.” But should we let students use Wikipedia as a research tool in the classroom? The answer, surprisingly, may be “yes.” I may have lost some of you naysayers at this point. You know who you are–many of you still proudly display your leather-bound sets of Encyclopedia Brittanica on your shelves, and you wouldn’t be caught dead pulling up Wikipedia on the library computers on your university campus. But hear me out…

Argument #1 against using Wikipedia for “formal” research: Wikipedia can be edited and “vandalized” by literally anyone using the internet.

It’s true–anyone can add material to a Wikipedia article. There aren’t designated authors out there; we are all authors. However, my husband and his friends tested the limits of Wikipedia several years ago while they were in college. They played a joke on one of their friends by writing an entry all about their poor victim and his…ahem…bathroom habits. They screen captured it and printed it out as proof that it existed. However, in a matter of minutes–minutes!–their entry was deleted. While there are no professional authors out there, apparently there are some pretty serious Wikipedia editors that watch the servers very closely for new information being added to their site. The Wikipedia Wikipedia article (I’m running out of clever ways to reference this) describes their bureaucratic system in extraordinary detail, explaining the process of becoming a site administrator and referencing the Wiki page that details policies and guidelines for editing. Just the idea that it only took minutes for my husband and his hooligan friends’ false article to be noticed and deleted is pretty impressive–and this was years ago, long before Wikipedia was being used on smart phones and tablets. I’m sure the turnaround rate for what Wikipedia terms as “vandalism” is much quicker now–it may only be a matter of seconds for false material to be detected and disposed of. I would also argue, from a teacher’s perspective, that Wikipedia’s editability (is that a real word?) could be an asset to the classroom. Imagine assigning your students to write research papers not just to be turned in and graded, but to be published online to Wikipedia? Our students will take a great deal more care with properly citing their sources and editing spelling and grammar if they know that they are writing an article for Wikipedia. Their writing will be published online as a source for other people to use for years to come–how exciting!

Argument #2 against using Wikipedia for “formal” research: The content included on Wikipedia is not always strictly academic.

Your Encyclopedia Brittanica probably doesn’t have an article about the life and career of Kim Kardashian. Most printed encyclopedias are mindful of their page count and restrictive with their content. Wikipedia is much more open about the type of material it includes, and it’s one of the reasons that it’s become one of the most widely-used reference tools on the internet. You will find science articles right alongside pop culture biographies, with up-to-the minute updates on noteworthy events almost as soon as they occur. That is one major advantage that Wikipedia has over a traditional printed tome–it avoids the lengthy publication process, so the information it provides is never out of date. According to the WW article (again), “50% of US physicians have consulted Wikipedia.” That either promotes your confidence in this vast online resource or it undermines your trust in your family doctor. 🙂

Argument #3 against using Wikipedia for “formal” research: The information it presents simply isn’t as reliable as the information in a published text.

I would have made this same argument several years ago. However, Wikipedia has changed quite a bit over the years, and the organization and administrators behind the scenes are working hard to make it just as reliable as any published reference tool. And, to reference the WW article again, “a 2005 survey of Wikipedia published in Nature based on a comparison of 42 science articles with Encyclopedia Britannica found that Wikipedia’s level of accuracy approached Encyclopedia Britannica’s and both had similar low rates of “serious errors.” Again, part of what makes Wikipedia more error proof is its changeability. A printed encyclopedia contains out-of-date information as soon as it hits the shelf–it’s inevitable. However, Wikipedia is constantly being updated and improved. It’s a living, breathing document, and one that contains far more (increasingly reliable) information than a printed text. One of the other things that I like about Wikipedia is that authors are required to cite their sources. We don’t have to take their word for it if we don’t trust them–we can simply check out the works that they cite at the bottom of the page, usually printed in hyperlink form for easy access. That means that when a student uses a Wikipedia page as a research tool, we (as teachers) can have them also use the works cited in the article. The Wikipedia article could theoretically be a springboard to searching even more (and more reliable, a skeptic might argue) sources like government sites and university databases. In this way, Wikipedia can provide a powerful blueprint–a “start here” guidemap–to more in depth research on any given topic. If the works cited on an article look a little slim, that may also be a good indication that very little is known about the topic being researched, and it might guide the student to choose a topic that’s a little more researchable.

Argument #4 against using Wikipedia for “formal” research: If we don’t set some boundaries, students won’t stop at Wikipedia–the next thing you know, they’ll be searching Twitter for their research papers!

Perdue OWL (Online Writing Lab)  is one step ahead of you–they’ve already explained a way to accurately quote and reference a tweet in MLA format. So if you’re worried that Wikipedia is just the beginning, your fears are founded. But really, I don’t think you need to be afraid. After all, what the internet boils down to is simply information that we’re accessing from our computers, laptops, tablets, and smart phones. Introducing and permitting Wikipedia to enter our classrooms is also a great way to springboard into teaching our students how to determine which web resources are reliable and which are not–a skill that they will likely use for years to come. So embrace the change! Or endure the fate that ICT teacher Nigel Willetts mentions in his quote: “When faced with a steam-rolling technology, you either become part of the technology or part of the road!”

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