sex drugs and intellectual freedom

Wikipedia, Truth, and the University

Posted in education, internets by A on 23 October 08

Technology Review currently has an article up about Wikipedia that basically amounts to a roundabout discussion of the subjective nature of truth. [via]

However, the piece brings up an interesting problem many of us haven’t considered: the often vicious circle of citation and verification.

Wikipedia lists its approved sources for citations hierarchically, beginning with peer-reviewed journals and books from university presses and ending up with mainstream news outlets with a point of view that (supposedly) remains relatively neutral. There’s a whole lot of stuff in Wikipedia (one of the things that makes it better than traditional encyclopedias) and many of those topics have no scholarly research to speak of. Like Pop Rocks. Or Jet Pants. As a result, MSM and pop culture publications are the only available records for many items. But…

…there is a problem with appealing to the authority of other people’s written words: many publications don’t do any fact checking at all, and many of those that do simply call up the subject of the article and ask if the writer got the facts wrong or right.

In turn, many journalists, bloggers, and other writers use Wikipedia for their cursory background research on a subject and, hey, if Wikipedia has a citation it must be alright! See where this is going? Some topics or Wikipedia entries are then doomed to an insular truth that may go relatively unnoticed. It may not be “wrong,” per say, but it certainly isn’t vetted in any proper way.

Of course, this is not true of all Wikipedia articles:

…studies have found that the articles are remarkably accurate. The reason is that Wikipedia’s community of more than seven million registered users has organically evolved a set of policies and procedures for removing untruths. This also explains Wikipedia’s explosive growth: if the stuff in Wikipedia didn’t seem “true enough” to most readers, they wouldn’t keep coming back to the website.

The problem of insularity is just one of the many complex and nuanced issues a resource as powerful as Wikipedia presents us. But people don’t always like to tackle complexity and nuance. They want the easy fix. Much of the time this is fine, but easy fixes shouldn’t always be acceptable.

Enter Wikipedia and the university.

Despite a proven authority on many topics, I’ve noticed an incredible aversion to it amongst faculty at my university. I assume the same applies to faculty at most universities across the US. Most of the time, students are sternly advised to steer clear of Wikipedia at all costs. At best, a professor or instructor will flippantly note that “yeah, ok, Wikipedia is a decent place to start but you better not cite it.” This is certainly good advice; Wikipedia is a great place—especially for students new to a topic or idea—to jump in and get your feet wet. And, obviously, any discussion worth anything won’t end there, just like any good discussion wouldn’t begin and end with the Encyclopedia Britannica.

However, the complete aversion or flippant reference does nothing to teach students how to effectively integrate Wikipedia resources into their research process. It becomes the same kind of hollow warning that “don’t wait until the night before it’s due to start your paper” has always been. Without any effective reason to not, students will pull the all-nighter. Without any effective lesson on how to use it, students will crutch poorly on Wikipedia. This is increasingly dangerous given the inordinately high rankings of Wikipedia articles in Google search results.

What we need is a commonplace classroom discourse that teaches us to approach Wikipedia with a critical lens. We should be advocating for these types of progressive, open resources while simultaneously equipping students with the tools necessary to effectively evaluate any resource. We’ll certainly end up with better researchers and, fingers crossed, a more critical citizenry.


One Response

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  1. Michael Zimmer said, on 24 October 08 at 7:16 PM

    “What we need is a commonplace classroom discourse….”

    Let’s do this.

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