Dear Dr. Fournier:
My teachers say that Wikipedia isn’t a good source to use for papers. I’m getting tired of hearing it, because I don’t understand why it isn’t. To me it just looks like they don’t want us to use something that is that fast for getting to collected information it used to take them a long time to put together. I’m sorry my teachers had to do research by riding a horse and buggy to a library that is thirty miles away through a snowstorm, but they need to account for the fact that the Internet has changed the way I can do research, and that just because I can do it quickly doesn’t mean that it isn’t accurate. What is your response to Wikipedia? How do you handle it with your students?
I can understand your frustration, and it may help you to know that many teachers from elementary school all the way up to the collegiate level are still on the fence about the credibility of Wikipedia, and where to draw the line. Wikipedia is a great place to get general information about a topic, whether it is on George Washington or George Costanza. It deserves some recognition as a lasting movement, for it was given little credit in its infancy by the academic community. Now it is difficult to ignore, both in its scope of topics and in the relevance, quality, and up to date nature of the articles. With that said, we cannot let the pendulum swing so far in the other direction that we assume it is infallible due to the open-source system of checks and balances.
Wikipedia has one great blessing and one great curse simultaneously: It is an example of the open source movement that allows for the constant editing, updating, and refining of information. The blessing is that it is always current. The curse is that since anyone can edit the information, it is always open to the possibility of dogmatic political or social propaganda being inserted into the articles, especially in hot button issues where people benefit the most from factual information. Though these cases are not necessarily the norm, they cannot be overlooked when attempting to argue for the credibility of the site as a whole.
A perfect example of this comes recently from the now infamous video footage of former Alaskan governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin giving an on-the-spot review of all she learned at the Paul Revere House on the freedom trail. In an ad-libbed review of Revere’s historical Midnight Ride, she made several innocent errors when describing the purpose of the ride and the way it was gone about. While this could be simply chalked up to attempting to play her persona to the cameras, it instead unleashed a furious debate between political parties attempting to either save face or to use the gaffs for political advantage. In the wake of this fervor, Palin’s fans rushed to edit the online encyclopedia Wikipedia to rewrite history, seeking to turn Palin’s misstatement into historical fact. As a result, and after days of back and forth editing, Wikipedia finally made the sensible call to effectively “freeze” the Revere page until the political climate cooled.
This example is not to draw attention to this incident per se, but to instead use it to illustrate the potential (and many times inevitable) problems when looking to Wikipedia for information about figures or topics that are hotly contested or politically charged. A simple way to note these discrepancies is that there is a note at the top of sections that the “factual accuracy is disputed.” If you are researching a topic and see this header, run to the hills, or better yet to the references at the bottom to direct yourself to primary sources.
WHAT TO DO:
Sandra Ordonez – a Wikipedia spokeswoman – said, “Wikipedia is the ideal place to start your research and get a global picture of a topic, however, it is not an authoritative source. In fact, we recommend that students check the facts they find in Wikipedia against other sources. Additionally, it is generally good research practice to cite an original source when writing a paper, or completing an exam. It’s usually not advisable, particularly at the university level, to cite an encyclopedia.”
Take this to heart. Students need to be taught and to understand that they are to go for quality information, not just convenience. This reliability will add strength to any argument that you are making in a paper, and will expose you to better primary and secondary materials along the way. For those stuck in the “is or isn’t Wikipedia reliable” debate, the key understanding in my opinion is that encyclopedias of any kind should not be notable citations for serious research papers. The focus should be on finding primary and credible secondary sources, not encyclopedic overviews. This is a call to dig deeper! Feel free to continue to start your research on Wikipedia for general information, but don’t stop there, you’ve only uncovered the tip of the iceberg!
CONTACT DR. FOURNIER