Monday, April 12, 2010

In Defense of Wikipedia

by Douglas Grudzina

When I retired from teaching (after 25 ½ years) to work at Prestwick House, teachers who taught research were still quibbling about whether to (1) require their students to use “one or two Internet sources” in their research projects (the rest being, of course, print sources), or (2) forbid use of the Internet because, after all, the sources were unreliable and the whole World-Wide-Web fad would die out eventually.

I confess that, as an over-forty-five-years-old teacher, I was more closely allied with the latter group—not that I absolutely forbid use of the Internet, but I was very careful to explain to my students the benefits of the strenuous vetting process most print sources undergo between the writer’s keyboard (okay, I probably used the word typewriter) and the researcher’s eyes. (Who knew the print media were so close to crashing and burning?)

Anyway, today Internet research is pretty much a given—guess it wasn’t such a fad after all. Still, interesting enough, the use of the Internet for research still involves a list of prohibitions—now, however, specific sites are banned.

Lately, the forbidden source of choice seems to be Wikipedia.

As a former Internet-distruster, I’d like to say a few words on behalf of “The Free Encyclopedia.”

The most common complaints I’ve heard and read—there are entire chapters of research books dedicated to trashing Wikipedia—are that it’s anonymous; it’s unauthoritative; it’s too easy for students to cut-and-paste and, thus plagiarize; and the information is too basic or general. These are the points I’d like to address and, in the process, maybe raise some essential questions about our assumptions about research and our teaching of research skills.

Wikipedia is anonymous.

I think it’s probably important to discuss the difference between “anonymous” and “unsigned.” It is possible—and not really all that difficult—to track down the identities of a writer/poster of a Wikipedia article and all those who have edited it. One can actually learn quite a bit about a topic by examining the editing history and reading the discussion board postings. If at least one goal of research is to collect a wide array of information from a variety of sources, reflecting multiple viewpoints, then these discussion boards are gold mines. The fact that the actual article might be unsigned should be more an invitation for the student to dig deeper than to avoid the article altogether.

Wikipedia is unauthoritative.

Again, we must be very careful not to confuse “unsigned” with “unauthoritative.” Wikipedia is, after all, an encyclopedia, and most encyclopedia articles—while certainly authoritative—are unsigned.

True, non-authorities can upload anything they want as a Wikipedia article, and pranksters can “edit” all sorts of untruths into an article—indeed this has happened in more than one well-publicized incident—but this phenomenon is certainly not unique to Wikipedia. (In fact, the lack of a vetting process was one of my original concerns about Internet research “back in the day” when I was still in the classroom, my computer had a dial-up modem, and the monitor screen displayed flickering green letters.) Wikipedia is, however, monitored. Articles are sometimes “closed” to comments and editing while some verification procedure is performed, and many of the posters and editors are, in fact, authorities in their fields.

So, it’s not altogether accurate or fair to dismiss all of the site’s content as unauthoritative.

Wikipedia makes it too easy for students to plagiarize.

Well, this is probably true. But it’s no less true of any other digital or electronic source from which all the student has to do is copy and paste. That potential simply highlights our need to teach our students why not to plagiarize and then provide them with effective techniques how not to take credit for someone else’s work.

(Not to mention imposing severe penalties on the student who knows better and still insists on cheating.)

The information on Wikipedia is too basic or general.

This is also a partially valid criticism. After all, Wikipedia does bill itself as an “encyclopedia.” The issue for our students, however, should not be whether they consult a basic source, but whether they then go any deeper. Granted, I might question a graduate student’s having to consult Wikipedia for a report on his or her major field, but a high school junior just being introduced to the subject? Why not?

As a writer, I consult Wikipedia a lot. In fact, it’s often the first source I look at, especially if all I need is a quick date or factoid—What year was William Wordsworth born? How did Josiah Wedgwood (no middle “e”) spell his name?

More often than not, however, Wikipedia is only the first site I visit. I get the overview, the basic info; then, I know what I need to look at in greater depth. So, the issue isn’t necessarily did I use Wikipedia, but did I use only Wikipedia?

I think our attitude toward individual sources—print, online, living, mystical, whatever—has a lot to say about our attitude toward the process and purpose of research itself. If the research project is simply a collecting of facts and then a recitation of those facts, then it might be perfectly appropriate to dictate what sources can and cannot be used.

If, however, we want our students to learn how to find information, pull from multiple sources, evaluate the sources they use and the information those sources offer, and synthesize it all into a coherent argument, then it probably does our students a disservice to outright forbid the use of any source or type of source. Certainly we want to teach them to see the benefits and disadvantages of any potential source. We want to teach them to step back and determine the value of whatever information a source provides. We want them to, eventually, understand what good research is and to conduct that good research more or less independently.

Utterly prohibiting the use of any source is more likely to hinder our attaining those goals than facilitate it.

There is, also, a strong benefit to allowing your students to consult an encyclopedic source like Wikipedia—especially in grades in which the students are first being exposed to the concept of research, self-teaching, and reporting on what one has learned independently. Theoretically, we want our students to know something at the end of the research process. We want them to be sort of mini-experts in their research topic.

If not, they why not simply let them copy and paste from a few Internet sources and call it a day?

Wikipedia articles are supposed to referenced, documented—whatever you want to call it. Whether the article is written by a Ph. D. or a fifth-grader, the site’s standards require notes and references—not unlike the ones you’ll want your students to include on their research papers. So seriously do Wikipedians take these standards that readers are warned when an article is not properly cited:

This article needs references that appear in reliable third-party publications …

This article is missing citations or needs footnotes …

Other notifications on Wikipedia articles include:

This article includes a list of references, related reading or external links, but its sources remain unclear because it lacks inline citations.

In other words, there is a “works cited page,” but no in-text documentation to verify any of the individual claims.

The neutrality of the style of writing in this article is questioned.

The very fact that the neutrality has been questioned suggests that neutrality or objectivity in source material is valued. Those who monitor this site are actually reinforcing some of what you’ve tried to teach your students about evaluating sources and being aware of issues like bias.

Indeed, some of the articles read like drafts of student research papers, complete with teacher comments identifying the problems and requesting solutions. Rather than forbid my students to look, I think I’d almost be tempted to require them to examine these flawed articles, help to fix them, and then avoid the problems in their own papers.

Even individual bits of information within articles are noted as questionable (citation needed). Readers are warned to beware of uncited claims. A number of options are then offered the researcher: delete the questionable information (if it is indeed inaccurate), edit it for accuracy, or provide a source to verify the accuracy. In other words, the lack of proper citation could be viewed as an invitation for your students to become—more than merely consumers of information—part of the conversation.

And isn’t that one of the reasons for teaching them research to begin with?

Like any other tool, then, the Internet’s “Free Encyclopedia” has its place in the researcher’s tool kit. Before we forbid our students to consult it—and, let’s face it, do you think our prohibition really stops any of them?—we should make certain we’ve examined exactly what it is we want our students to do and to learn in this research project and how consulting Wikipedia is likely to thwart their meeting those objectives.

We might be surprised to learn instead that it’s just what they need to get started in the right direction.


Anonymous said...

Great post. While the artcles might be general , I find that the eternal links give then endless depth.

Dr. R.D. Harter said...

I disagree with the author. I teach college level English and Legal Studies. Our Department(s) policy is to not allow Wikipedia - for the very reasons the author lists. The author does not establish her position with reasoning, logic or facts, rather mere generalizations and comments about what Wikipedia is not. The assumptions the author wants the reader to accept are incorrect. Other search engines are much better, more scholarly, and accepted as authorities. Wikipedia may be acceptable for a retired elementary teacher but not for today's college student or professional. Dr. R.D. Harter