Wikipedia has tempted more than one student when the essay crunch draws near
Wikipedia seems to be the first place many students turn to when beginning a research project, an essay, or a term paper. However, it’s also the first place most teachers advise students not to venture.
Since it was first launched in January of 2001, one question that always seemed to arise when talking about the online encyclopedia is: “Is Wikipedia an academic source?”
“Wikipedia is not a solid academic source,” says George Hoffman of the University of Regina history department. “It is unreliable and the quality is uneven.”
When it started, the vision for Wikipedia was, according to founder Jimmy Wales, to “create a free high-quality encyclopedia for every single person on the planet, in their own language.”
On the non-profit site contributors can come from anywhere, usually publishing their work anonymously. Most pages on Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, though a few pages require the user to register or are sometimes locked to everyone except the site administrators. The site is available in over 175 languages and there are over three million entries, covering topics such as sports, arts, history, society, mathematics, and geography.
Clearly, Wikipedia contains a large database of information. It is also a website that is readily available to students. When students use an online search engine to find information, Wikipedia is usually one of the first options that appears. This makes the site tempting to students, especially when there may not be a lot of other options on the internet.
According to Wales, even though Wikipedia contains information on many different topics and is easy to use, he would personally not recommend students use it as an academic source, especially at the university level. He says that the site is merely a starting point.
“In general, I don’t think that Wikipedia is valid as a source for an academic paper at the university level,” Wales says. “This is for the same reason that Britannica is not valid as a source in that context. We aren’t in junior high at this level and citing an encyclopedia is lame.”
“The role of the encyclopedia in the research process is to give you a broad understanding, a background context and to assist you in digging deeper in original sources to learn more. It should be as high quality as possible. But, even the best encyclopedia is a starting point, not a stopping point, for any serious work.”
While not every teacher in the world completely condemns Wikipedia, it is pretty clear that, like Wales, they feel it should not be used as a primary source in a project. Every student out there has likely been warned by their teacher to exercise caution when using the site. Some teachers will subtract marks if it is listed as a source on a student’s project.
However, Wales explains that educators’ understanding of Wikipedia should not be confused for complete rejection.
“Most teachers love Wikipedia, use it all the time and are eager to teach students the right way to use it,” he says. “I think most educators have the appropriate degree of trust in Wikipedia that anyone should have. It is a work in process and there are errors. It’s pretty good, but not perfect, just as any general reference work is. Students need to learn how to use Wikipedia correctly.”
Hoffman does not completely condemn Wikipedia either.
“Some entries are good and some others, if not good, are interesting,” he says. “Perhaps Wikipedia tells us something about our time. It would be interesting to know exactly who is doing the writing for Wikipedia and why.
“Students no doubt will continue to consult Wikipedia. They should approach Wikipedia carefully and intelligently – with a good deal of scepticism.”
Though Wikipedia may not be the best source to use for a project, it is likely that some students will continue to do just that. The current generation of students are much more dependent on technology, and are more likely to look for quick information than taking the time to get research books from the library.
Perhaps the biggest point Wales can make about Wikipedia, or any source of information, is that it is important to question the information you read.
“I wouldn’t want to live in a world where people take any information uncritically – that’s not my goal,” he explains. “My goal is to encourage people to think, to question, to learn.”
Wikigroaning is like a contact sport for your brain, in that you should expect to get tackled brutally and often. The rules are simple: you simply think of two things which are related to each other somehow, one of which is a little more – to put it politely – esoteric than the other, and then you look them up on Wikipedia to find out which article is longer. It’s fun for the whole family, assuming the whole family finds it funny that “Book of Genesis” is a shorter article than “Genesis (band).”
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