Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Never cite Wikipedia?

Over on Lingamish, David advises Never Cite Wikipedia. I am largely in agreement with David but with a couple of extra cautions. These depend, as always when discussing Wikipedia, on the ability and depth of research of the student in question:

(1) We spend so much time drumming into students that they must cite their sources and, of course, avoid plagiarism, that some students will hear a mixed message if they are encouraged to use Wikipedia but not to cite it. Weaker students might well feel encouraged to take over material from Wikipedia without attribution and then to think that they are in some way doing the right thing by not citing it. If students have relied heavily on Wikipedia, then there is a problem, and it is one that is not solved by not citing it. David is not, of course, advising this, but I would want to be careful about giving students this advice lest the weaker ones misunderstood it.

(2) The ideal is to encourage students not to read Wikipedia but to write it. Whenever I am asked about Wikipedia in class, this is the response I give -- that they should be writing it as well as reading it. In other words, the students on our courses should get to the point where they know enough about the topic, and understand it clearly enough, that they see the need to correct errors, expand unclear information, add citations and generally improve the resource. I lead by example here and often make small corrections on articles I find on the site, especially when they relate to Doctor Who and especially when the grammar is bad. (Incorrect use of "however" is one of the greatest irritations).

10 comments:

Matt Page said...

Incorrect use of however?

Mark Goodacre said...

Yes, where students put ",however," in the middle of a sentence to signal a change of gear, e.g. "Mark 6.4 (RSV) says that Jesus was a 'carpenter', however, some scholars say that the word just means 'someone who works with his hands'". When "however" is used this way, it should, of course, be in a sentence where there is some form of contrast with the previous sentence. The usage seems to be getting more common in student writing, and it is very common in Wikipedia.

Peter M. Head said...

So what if you write a couple of paragraphs for Wikipedia and then include those same paragraphs in an article (or student essay)? If you don't cite Wikipedia you could be done for plagiarism. If you do cite Wikipedia people will think you are citing Wikipedia.

Mark Goodacre said...

Ha ha, excellent. I suppose the answer is not to make your updates on Wikipedia anonymously and then you can demonstrate to your teacher that you were the one to do the updates.

Stephen C. Carlson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephen C. Carlson said...

Good point. The problem is not the citation of Wikipedia, but its use as a final resource for students. Telling them not to cite Wikipedia makes the problem seem like a citational issue, not a researching issue.

Doug Chaplin said...

However, I think you should rewrite wiki articles on Q and not just Who.

Mark Goodacre said...

Ha ha, Doug.

Actually, I did start re-doing the Wikipedia article on Q some time ago in response to a challenge from Jim West, but he didn't keep to his part of the bargain to work on the Zwingli article, so I lost the energy.

Juliette said...

I like the idea of telling them they should be writing it - or maybe, that they should be able to write it (i.e. they should be using primary material and know more than the Wikipedia editor). Trying to get them to understand why they can't just rely on any secondary author, especially Wikipedia, is always a nightmare...

Timo S. Paananen said...

#2 is spot on. I have toyed with the idea that a lecture course - instead of asking people to write essays that profit only themselves - would be passed by editing a Wikipedia article to a quality one. Or to use Wikipedia articles in the final exam: "How would you improve this article?" Or, on small courses, working all together, reading scholarly treatises, transferring the knowledge into Wikipedia. Practical issues aside :-)

Of course the main problem with Wikipedia is still the inaccurate and incomplete information in the articles. Not that there weren't lots and lots of people in the Academy who would be extremely qualified to edit (and continue to be the primary editor of) their article of expertise, but there isn't any incentive to do so - could one put into one's CV that one is a primary editor in Wikipedia of various articles in one's scholarly field?

Maybe in future when blogging on academic matters with a purpose to educate and share information freely starts to look like a good idea to add into one's CV?