Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Using Wikipedia as a Documented Resource for Research

Written for the OP-ED page of the New Canaan High School Courant, New Canaan, CT

Re: School policy limiting use of Wikipedia for academic research

Date: October 17, 2007

Why Not Wikipedia?

Contrary to popular belief, I love Wikipedia. And this might
surprise you, but the first thing I did when I sat down to write this piece was to consult Wikipedia on the subject of Wikipedia criticism. But you will not see that consultation in my list of references.

The beauty of Wikipedia, the fact that a community of learners collaborate to construct the information database, is precisely its weakness when it is used for academic research. 

Jim Wales, who founded Wikipedia, explained in an interview with Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air
last April that the software, which allows everyone to contribute, is open ended. Nothing [on Wikipedia] is considered done. And that is why it can be consulted, but not cited for academic research.

In the MLA Handbook for Writer’s of Research Papers, Joseph Gibaldi describes the purpose of documenting sources: “In presenting their work, researchers generously acknowledge their debts to predecessors by carefully documenting each source, so that earlier contributions receive appropriate
credit.” The bibliography provides the researcher’s audience a roadmap to the information sources she used. This is where using reference work that is constantly evolving poses a problem. Researchers cannot reliably direct readers to the same Wikipedia source they used when conducting research because the source itself is in a perpetual state of metamorphosis.

Our students love to tell me “Wikipedia is more reliable than Encyclopaedia Britannica!” I think what they are referring to is a 2005 investigation by experts at the journal Nature. The study revealed that among 42 tested science entries, Wikipedia articles, on average, had four inaccuracies as compared to Britannica’s three. So according to current published data, Britannica is still better, but that is beside the point.

Last January, Time magazine announced its “Person of the Year” award to YOU! (YOU! being, quite literally, everyone). The article explained, “The new Web is a very different thing. It's a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter. Silicon Valley
consultants call it Web 2.0, as if it were a new version of some old software. But it's really a revolution.” It is YouTube, FaceBook, Wikipedia and so much more.

As much as I love Web 2.0 for informal learning and entertainment (and I really do!) I maintain that it should not be cited in academic research. In July 2006, Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report coined the term Wikiality (a fusion of Wikipedia and reality), “When Wikipedia becomes our most trusted reference source, reality is just what the majority agrees upon”. Comedy aside, is that what we want?

Last July, in the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Keen, who wrote "The Cult of the Amateur," argued the Web has become overwhelmed with useless noise. [Referring to the Time  “Person of the Year” award, he says,] The problem is that YOU! have forgotten how to listen, how to read, how to watch . . . We've lost truth and interest in the objectivity of mainstream media because of our self- infatuation with the subjectivity of our own messages. It's what … I call digital narcissism.” (Brophy-Warren).

While Keen’s views may sound old-fashioned to a generation that has bared its entire adolescence on Web 2.0 (MySpace, FaceBook, etc.), it does raise some concern about the perceived value of academia – particularly among that generation. By requiring students to avoid referencing Wikipedia in their
research, we are asking them to distinguish between informal, recreational learning sources and academic resources. Consider the contrast between Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Jim Lehrer’s The NewsHour. You can gain new information from both, but you’d better check your information
before quoting as fact something you heard on The Daily Show. This is a distinction students will need to make in college. According to Matt Reilly of The Daily Orange, the Syracuse University newspaper, academic departments from Tufts, UPenn, UCLA and Middlebury have all disallowed
the use of Wikipedia as a cited source.

Last February, Noam Cohen wrote in the New York Times that the Middlebury College history department adopted the policy when “Dr. Waters and other professors in the history department had begun noticing … that students were citing Wikipedia as a source in their papers. When confronted,
many would say that their high school teachers had allowed the practice.”

At New Canaan High School, our objective is to prepare our students for lifelong learning – for both recreational and academic purposes. We aim to help students define the boundaries for each, but with Web 2.0, the lines are becoming increasingly blurred. There should come a time in a student’s academic career when he intuitively recognizes what is an authoritative resource for scholarly
research, but there is a learning curve for this. Until we are confident that every student at NCHS has internalized that ability, we will maintain our policy of disallowing the use of Wikipedia as a cited source. We will not be that group of high school teachers that Middlebury history professors have been
hearing about.


 Brophy-Warren, Jamin. "Reply All: The Good, the Bad, And the 'Web 2.0' :Online edition. " Wall
Street Journal
17  Jul. 2007. Platinum Full Text Periodicals. ProQuest. New Canaan High School Library, New Canaan, CT. 8 Oct. 2007 <>.

 Cohen, Noam. “A History Department Bans Citing Wikipedia as a Research Source.” New York Times. 21 Feb. 2007: B8. Platinum Full Text Periodicals. ProQuest. New Canaan High School Library, New Canaan, CT. 8 Oct. 2007 <>.

Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 6th ed. New York: MLA, 2003.

Giles, Jim. "Internet Encyclopaedias Go Head To Head." Nature  438.7070 (2005): 900-1. Platinum Full Text Periodicals. ProQuest. New Canaan High School Library, New Canaan, CT.  8 Oct. 2007  <>.

Gross, Terri. “Jimmy Wales on the User-Generated Generation.” Fresh Air. National Public Radio. WHYY. 19 Apr. 19, 2007. 8 Oct. 2007 < /templates/story/story.php?storyId=9683874>.

Grossman, Lev. "Person of the Year: You. " Time. 25 Dec. 2006: 38. Platinum Full Text Periodicals. ProQuest.  New Canaan High School Library, New Canaan, CT.  8 Oct. 2007

Reilly, Matt. “College Departments Begin to Ban Wikipedia as Cited Reference.” Daily Orange (Syracuse). 2 Apr. 2007. Virtually Advising. 2007. 8 Oct. 2007

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