William Beutler on Wikipedia

The Kids are Alright

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on April 29, 2009 at 6:59 am by William Beutler

Straw man arguments against Wikipedia are fairly commonplace — it’s difficult to generalize accurately about a website with nearly 3 million pages and 65 million visitors (last month). Here’s just one, from University of Washington professors Michael Eisenberg and Alison J. Head, published in the Seattle Times last week. It’s about the research habits of students, and although the op-ed summarizes a paper about more than Wikipedia, you can tell it was a focal point:

The large majority of students we interviewed said they begin with Wikipedia, the vast, online peer-to-peer encyclopedia — despite professors’ cautions about Wikipedia as an authoritative source. As one student put it, Wikipedia is ideal for “presearch,” or big-picture background “in good English” before moving on to more serious research. Most students also said they don’t tell their professors they use Wikipedia; they simply avoid citing it in their reports.

But we’re not here to debate Wikipedia. We want students learning how to select the right sources and use them aware of limitations. Wikipedia, for example, may be suitable for presearch, but not for definitive judgments. Learning these differences is essential in our digital world because so much of what’s out there is flawed or incomplete.

Actually, it sounds like you are here to debate Wikipedia, especially as it seems that students have already figured out what it is you aim to show them, namely that Wikipedia is not to be relied upon for “definitive judgments.” So where’s the problem? And why complain about something that’s not?

I decided to have a look at the actual research paper, also produced by Eisenberg and Head. It turns out that there is more information there about how students really do seem to get this:

In our sessions, students also discussed concerns over Wikipedia and accuracy. However, most participants believed that they, themselves, had the ability to discern the credibility of a Wikipedia source, based on their “gut level” interpretation of Wikipedia’s rating system (e.g., posted notes by editors such as, “This article needs additional citations for verification”).

The report itself, “What Today’s College Students Say about Conducting Research in the Digital Age” [PDF], provides a fascinating exploration of the way students do use Wikipedia, with interviews producing explanations of Wikipedia use by students like this:

I go to Wikipedia just so to get an understanding of a topic. Like, I did a paper on Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia and I went to Wikipedia first just to check it out. I looked at the history of Puerto Rico and then, Puerto Ricans in the United States. Just to get a basic understanding, so that, I could say to myself, okay, I know the beginning now, I know the current situation, I’m okay, and now I’ve got some citations and stuff, I’ve got a stepping stone to get deeper into the issue I’ve chosen.

I highly recommend “FIGURE 3: Why Do Students Use Wikipedia?”; I’d say it answers the question definitively. Among the reasons explained in the paper is that Wikipedia can provide students with access points into difficult topics:

Students who used scholarly databases after a Wikipedia search said that they avoided starting with scholarly databases first because it was “too much too soon.” Overall, students reported that scholarly articles had “too much technical jargoabout” and “were often not up to date as Wikipedia.”

All are great points. On the last one, Wikipedia is especially unique, and this really underscores the profound development Wikipedia represents. I am fairly certain I was not aware of Wikipedia by the time I graduated from college in early 2002, and I certainly didn’t use it in any research projects. But I know I’m far from alone from wishing I’d had it to consult when I was in school — far more than Facebook, to be sure.

If the professors have any complaint I agree with (from the paper, not the op-ed) it is this:

While some students mentioned the penalties for using Wikipedia for course-related research assignments (e.g., ranging from public humiliation in class to receiving a failing grade), we found the majority of students ignored the negatives and went to the site anyway. Most students depended on and used Wikipedia for information cited in papers, but just never included Wikipedia entries on their Works Cited page.

Interesting point. There should be a way to do this. I would certainly support a system, accepted by university professors, for students to acknowledge that Wikipedia helped shape their research. Wikipedia is no substitute, but it should be considered an aid at least on par with Cliffs Notes. Better still, if a professor challenged an assertion in a student’s work and the wrong bit came from Wikipedia, it would be a pedagogic bonus and true service to correct that error. And there are no better professors to start doing so than Michael Eisenberg and Alison J. Head.