It goes without saying that students use Wikipedia extensively, probably more than any other social group. Although the website's founder Jimmy Wales once warned readers not to use the website for academic purposes, American research shows that the majority of students browse its pages when researching essays.
Most universities and academics distrust the service, my department's "Essential Guide for Students" leaves no room for ambiguity, warning us: "Never cite Wikipedia." But why is the academic world so hostile to this vast information resource? And why do students find it so hard to stay away?
The greatest strength of Wikipedia is that its contributors can chose which area they want to write about, which, in theory, means they only produce content where they are most qualified to do so. Harvard University's Professor Yochai Benkler says this explains why Wikipedia has succeeded where other more traditional business models like Microsoft Encarta and Encyclopaedia Britannica have failed.
Lancaster Law School academic Dr Richard Austen-Baker illustrates this theory. He registered with Wikipedia to clean up an article on his specialist subject – relational contract theory. The original entry was a bit "raggedy around the edges", he says. But of course, the article may well have changed since Dr Austen-Baker made his contributions – and therein lies the danger of open source content.
Academics discredit the website for several reasons: articles can be written by anyone, not necessarily a world expert; editing and regulation are imperfect and a reliance on Wikipedia can discourage students from engaging with genuine academic writing. Vandalism is also common. There are numerous examples of politicians and public figures amending articles about themselves to erase unfavourable material. Wikipedia's own incomplete list of hoaxes makes interesting and comical reading (I particularly appreciated the fictitious "Township of Asstree, Tennessee").
Despite Wikipedia's drawbacks, students will continue to take advantage of the resource – and the default response of academics to simply advise against using the site is unlikely to have much effect. Lancaster lecturer Dr Catherine Easton says students must develop an ability to analyse the nature of the source material within Wikipedia, adding that the educator should ensure there is "a strong, continuing focus on the need to support academic work with references to acceptable scholarly sources".
Both of the academics questioned for this article agree that it is easy to spot essays that are over-reliant on Wikipedia, and that direct citation of the site was always unacceptable. While following the footnotes in Wikipedia pages is a way to access stronger content, they say a critical mind should be applied to each source individually. Dr Austen-Baker says that some articles on Wikipedia can be "exotically inaccurate", and that undergraduates must familiarise themselves with the equivalent, and often ignored, written encyclopaedias. He adds that over-reliance on free electronic materials makes it increasingly difficult to publish traditional books at all.
Dr Easton believes the "consensus-based" approach employed by Wikipedia might actually make the website's most popular articles less subjective than the introductions found elsewhere. But, she adds, like any information source, it can only be put to good use when it's in the hands of a discerning and critical student.
We recently enlisted the help of one of the online librarians at APUS to share why Wikipedia may not be the best place to search for information.
How to find alternatives to improve your scholarly research.
The quality of your education hinges on the quality of your research. Did you know that Wikipedia entries can be written and edited by anyone? That’s why I advise students to always consider the source when researching information for their scholarly projects. Wikipedia can be helpful in guiding you as you gather ideas about a subject, but remember the information is unsubstantiated and in some cases, inaccurate. What you’re looking for is a trusted academic source.
“Wikipedia, as well as Google, Bing, Yahoo and other public search engines offer unprecedented searching power – but they can also be an intellectual mess for scholars,“ said Fred Stielow Dean of the Academic Library at American Public University System (APUS). Although you may feel more comfortable using search engines like Google than with in-depth Web resources like the library databases; turning to an open Web search engine can cause problems if you aren’t careful. Search results and unverified entries like those found in Wikipedia pages are inconsistent. Some entries are long and thorough, while others are short and omit critical information.
For example, I can click the “Edit this Page” tab in Wikipedia and change an entry I’m searching on however I choose. So if I decide that Flora is not only the goddess of flowers and the season of spring, but also of minty fluoride toothpaste, I can make it so, regardless of whether or not it’s false.
While there is nothing wrong with turning to a Wikipedia entry to collect background information, be sure that you:
- Verify the information you find with at least two other sources
- Cite the authoritative source in your paper and not Wikipedia
- Check with your academic library site or a librarian if you’re unsure
Blogs and Websites
Your research paper can only be as strong as the sources you cite, and Web searches tend to pull up many sources that are not very strong at all. Just as anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry, anyone can publish a website or blog. Many blogs and websites–particularly anonymous ones or ones where you cannot verify the author’s credentials–are inappropriate to use in a college-level research project. This is true of personal webpages too, even when they appear on .edu sites, which is the domain designated for educational institutions. For example, student papers, including those that received poor grades, are often published on .edu sites, so you will want to evaluate the information carefully and only cite sources written by experts in the field.
Dot-com sites are often too problematic to use for research projects. Most of the sites that have .com in the URL are most likely marketing related. The people hosting the sites are trying to sell you something. So if you’re writing a paper about the potential health benefits and hazards of milk consumption, gotmilk.com isn’t your best or impartial source. While you might find it useful to analyze the content of .com sites, beware of using information in these sites to support your arguments.
I encourage you to utilize your school’s library staff when researching assignments. They’ll be able to help you pinpoint credible journals and sources. With options like Turnitin.com, a plagiarism check Website used by many universities, you’ll want to ensure that what you’re turning in for class is factual and properly cited.
By Christy Stevens
Online Librarian, American Public University System
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