Saturday, August 18, 2007

More on how to engage with Wikipedia

An interesting article entitled Student's program sends PR chaos in Wiki scandal has been doing the rounds on the internet; it is on the
One American student sent major corporations, governments and even the Vatican on the defensive after coming up with Wikipedia Scanner, a software program that reveals who changed Wikipedia entries . . . .

. . . . What Virgil Griffith did was come up with a program that reveals who edits these articles, via a system where it scans the I.P address and cross-references it with the I.P. directory.
One of the things that I find interesting about the report of this new "Wikiscanner" is that some see at as an invitation to discredit Wikipedia in toto rather than as a positive development with the potential to sniff out the some of the worst aspects of Wikipedia. Since we all knew that this kind of thing was going on (didn't we?), I would have thought that the invention of a tool that shines a spotlight on the worst offenders is something to be celebrated. I am grateful to Michael Pahl for sending me over an article from CBC News that reports on the "Wikiscanner" in a way that hits the right notes:

New 'WikiScanner' exposes underhanded editors
Wikipedia touts itself as the "free encyclopedia that anyone can edit," but a new online tool now makes it harder for those with an agenda to edit it in a sneaky fashion.

Ordinarily Wikipedia allows anyone to edit its articles, and the encyclopedia has become a target for vandals, revisionists and spin doctors. In an effort to keep Wikipedia more honest, U.S. graduate student Virgil Griffiths created WikiScanner, a site that can trace the IP addresses of computers that have made edits to Wikipedia entries in the last five years . . . .

. . . . Griffiths said his project is not intended to eliminate anonymity, but rather to preserve Wikipedia's credibility.

"I do not believe something like WikiScanner, which identifies people, is necessary. Overall — especially for non-controversial topics — Wikipedia already works," he writes. "For controversial topics, Wikipedia can be made more reliable through techniques like this one. For any sort of 'open' project, I strongly prefer allowing people to remain anonymous while also doing various back-end analyses to counteract vandalism and disinformation."

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales obviously appreciates the effort.

"It is fabulous and I strongly support it," Wales told the Associated Press.
Notice the parts that the first article quoted above does not tell you.

Now a couple of bibliobloggers have commented on the first of the articles above, the more negative take on "Wikiscanner", most recently Jim West and before him Ben Witherington III. The latter uses it as an opportunity for expressing concern about internet resources in general:
Lots of my students, unfortunately, use the Internet as a substitute for good careful research. It's seductive and easy and quick. It forestalls long hours in the library. It often leads to shoddy research and worse papers.
I have several problems with this kind of broadside. I think "the Internet" is already so vast that it is not possible to talk about it in these general terms. "The Internet" includes vast numbers of reproductions of peer-reviewed journal articles, for example, including some of Ben Witherington's. I don't think we are any longer in a place where we can talk meaningfully about "the internet" in these terms. Of course I'm all for hours in the library. I practically lived there for a decade in Oxford, and I'm the kind of person who still feels a warm glow, a sense of eager anticipation when I go through the doors of the library here at Duke. Yet, even when through the doors of the library here, the first thing I see is a bank of computers, all down the left hand side as one walks in. And there are faculty and students there accessing academic resources.

Of course some students use resources that are not ideal, and some do the kind of "shoddy research" that Ben rightly frowns upon. This is the kind of reason that I have spent huge portions of my life working on internet resources, so I appreciate the reminder of the fact that some students will continue to be below par in their work. But the best students will embrace the best that the internet has to offer, just as they will enjoy browsing books and journals that are not available on the net. In other words, the problem here is not with "the internet"; the problem is with laziness, with those who are not prepared to invest time doing decent research.

Ben also writes:
I can tell you right now that some of the most popular sites which they use are not at all reliable sources of information. One of those is Wikipedia.
But here I would simply want to reiterate what I have often said before, that Wikipedia is not a "source", it is a "resource". As such, it requires critical engagement in the same way that other resources require critical engagement. The model I work with is one in which students themselves analyse and test resources in the light of their reading of the primary sources (e.g. In defence of Wikipedia, with further discussion under the label Wikipedia). The moment when students are themselves editing and contributing to Wikipedia in the light of their careful research and reading of the literature is the moment when they have begun to understand something very important about the educational process..

Ben's view of internet resources tends towards what I would regard as a "top down" one:
When doing work in theology or Biblical studies or the cognate fields don't trust websites not recommended to you by your instructors or the experts in the field. Period.
I have some sympathy with this view; I like to recommend good internet resources to my students when they are working on a topic, so I am disinclined to criticise this perspective. Nevertheless, I must say that I feel particularly happy when a first class student recommends a really good internet resource to me. On occasions like that, the student has realized that the educational process is one of engagement and mutual learning.

Wikipedia is here to stay. It is going to grow and grow. There is no question about that. The question is how we, as academics, deal with it. Is it going to be a process of critical engagement, of mutual learning and interaction with our students, or is it going to be one of turning our back and walking away? I continue to think that critical engagement is the way ahead.


Judy Redman said...

Before the advent of the internet, poor/lazy students would quote anything in print that they could lay their hands on uncritically. Good students might well quote the same sources, but they would critique them rather than offering them as "proof" of anything.

Teachers don't say "don't trust anything in print not recommended to you by your instructors or experts in the field" because they recognise that no-one can stay on top of what's being published. The same approach should be taken to the internet. Students should be taught to be critical readers, not to trust things experts say. Morton Smith used to be a trusted expert once. :-)

And, as you say, Mark, the internet is not monolithic.

Zephyr said...

Good on you, Mark, for encouraging your students to engage any resource critically!

Part of the reason the internet is such a valuable resource is that it makes many resources available quickly. This enables research to be pursued critically much more readily than the perusal of print resources. Not that the internet should replace research of print resources, but the process of critical evaluation can happen so much more quickly (and broadly) using the internet.

I have sometimes found that Wikipedia touches on a wider range of issues relating to a topic (and links to related articles) that aren’t always covered by more specialist resources.

I've blogged about this more at

James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for posting on this Mark! (I suspected you would!) I've blogged it as well at and so won't repeat here what I wrote there. Just thought I'd share it...

James Shaw said...

Dr. Goodacre wrote: "Of course I'm all for hours in the library. I practically lived there for a decade in Oxford, and I'm the kind of person who still feels a warm glow, a sense of eager anticipation when I go through the doors of the library here at Duke. Yet, even when through the doors of the library here, the first thing I see is a bank of computers, all down the left hand side as one walks in. And there are faculty and students there accessing academic resources."

One distinction worth remembering is that those "academic resources" are typically found in commercial databases to which libraries subscribe. My middle-sized state university library now spends over $500,000/year on commercial databases, which chiefly provide online access to academic journals. One connects to the databases via the Internet, but the actual search and retrieval remains in a database.

I am sure we all appreciate the free, open access academic resources which increasingly pepper the Internet, but do not forget to support your local library. The caution that "you get what you pay for" still applies, and if libraries cannot purchase database accounts, then those resources will not be conveniently available.