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February 21, 2007

Should the digital revolution lower standards for truth?

Should students or scholars cite to Wikipedia as a reliable source? I admit that I have cited Wikipedia once or twice, though only to provide an informal definition and examples of a recent concept (for example, I recently pointed to it for emerging variants on spam such as spim, splog, spit, etc.).

The Middlebury College History Department has ruled that its
students may not cite Wikipedia in research papers or exams (via NY Times). This was prompted in part by six students who recently made the same error by relying on Wikipedia to study for a Japanese history exam.

My inclination is to agree. Rapidly decreasing costs of communications and computation gave us networked information resources, which provide much faster and cheaper access to vast quantities of information. A somewhat unexpected consequence has been that many people are confusing accessibility for reliability, and quote willy-nilly because "it's on the Internet". If more information is more readily available, wouldn't we expect to see people become more selective in picking sources? Certainly, I think that is what I think we teachers and scholars should promote: a higher, not a lower standard.

The leaders of the Wikipedia project do not apparently disagree. Founder Jimmy Wales is quoted in the NYT article as saying that students shouldn't rely on any encyclopedia as a citation for research. The following statement appears (at the moment!) on the meta-page Wikipedia:About,

While the overall [quality] trend is generally upward, it is important to use Wikipedia carefully if it is intended to be used as a research source, since individual articles will, by their nature, vary in standard and maturity.

Interestingly, one of the three core principles for Wikipedia content is that it be verifiable.

"Verifiable" in this context means that any reader should be able to check that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source.

While, if scrupulously and professionally followed, this principle would ensure that we could rely on Wikipedia as a reliable source, I think the main point is different: every statement in Wikipedia, if correct, can be found in a more reliable source elsewhere. Careful students and scholars can search out the more reliable sources.

Indeed, many people I know (including me) advocate using Wikipedia primarily in this way: as an introduction or convenient overview of a topic, identifying facts or ideas that the scholar then verifies elsewhere, in more reliable sources.

Posted by jmm at February 21, 2007 02:47 PM

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