Wednesday, March 28, 2007

In Defence of Wikipedia

It is becoming fashionable among academics these days to have a go at Wikipedia. This is inevitable for a variety of reasons. Academics are often behind their students in the use of new technology, and this brings about a reaction of fear. We witnessed the same thing with the advent of the world wide web in the 90s and now that fears about the academic value of internet resources has diminished, a new, narrower target has been found. It is an easy target because its open source basis makes it often apparently "unreliable". The presence of errors, curious slants and incomplete information have confirmed many academics' instinctive disapproval of the resource.

Negative reactions to the use of Wikipedia in the classroom, however, are unnecessary and should be discouraged:

(1) Fear of Wikipedia will eventually catch up on critical academics in the same way that fear of "the internet" caught up with academics who were complaining about it ten years ago. It is still recent history that some academics were forbidding students to access any internet resources in the writing of their papers. I well remember regular disparaging remarks about "the internet" taken as a whole. It is now easy for us to see that it was absurd to discourage students to use the internet and instead the way forward was (and is) to guide and interact with our students in their use of internet resources, not least given the sheer number of academic articles that are available on-line. In due course, broadsides against Wikipedia may look as absurd as broadsides against "the internet" now look.

(2) One of the strengths of Wikipedia is that it is much more up-to-date than its print counterparts. Regularly, almost always, students will find much fresher material in Wikipedia than they will in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It is also, of course, becoming ever more comprehensive.

(3) I like the fact that Wikipedia often acts as a gateway and points beyond itself. Its encouragement to all its writers to source their statements sometimes makes it more rigorous than print counterparts, which find it easier to get away with value judgements and even sleights of hand. The multi-author, multi-reader interaction that is at the heart of the whole idea of Wikipedia also helps a great deal in assuring less jaundiced viewpoints and more balance.

(4) Using Wikipedia is risky. That's often taken as a negative ("How can I rely on information found here?") rather than a positive ("How shall I assess the material I find here?"). Criticisms of Wikipedia often proceed from an inadequate model of the educational process, a kind of text book culture in which people find themselves lazily reliant on a limited number of supposedly reliable text books. The sooner that students realize that their text books too should be questioned, the sooner they will begin to learn effectively. This is especially important in the humanities, and nowhere more so than in teaching Religion, where the last thing one wants is narrow reliance on a limited number of viewpoints. It is surely essential for students to embrace the riskiness and uncertainty of our knowledge base in the area, and to avoid the reactionary and lazy temptation to close down the scope of secondary resources consulted.

(5) It is useful, in my experience, to engage with students' use of new technology and resources and not to find oneself lagging behind them. Ideally, it is good to know more than your students do about resources in your own area. Rather than making broad attacks against Wikipedia, therefore, it is far preferable to familiarize yourself with what Wikipedia has to offer in your own area and then you can recommend the best articles in Wikipedia on your area to your students. This is very straightforward to achieve. You know your own area far better than your students know it and it does not take long to assess key articles which you might want to recommend to them.

(6) Where Wikipedia falls short, think about flagging up the offending article for working on yourself or, still better, encourage your students themselves to work on the offending article and engage with them in their updating of it. They will love being involved in this kind of process and it is difficult to imagine any more useful way of getting your students thinking through the necessary issues connected with writing a good encyclopaedia article on the subject. It is a great shame that so many academics have taken the route of criticizing the existing provision rather than attempting to improve it. Do we just sit around and complain about all the existing books and articles that don't do just what we want to do, or do we try to write new ones?

I am not alone, I am happy to say, in this backlash against the negative take on Wikipedia. Last week (H.T.: Gypsy Scholar), this article appeared in the New Republic:

Wikipedia is good for academia
Source Wars
by Eric Rauchway

The article begins with reference to the decision at the History Department at Middlebury College which last month banned students' citation of Wikipedia. The Stoa Consortium (e.g. Middlebury Wikigate Revisited and Wikipedia editing as a teaching tool) has been weighing in and Cathy Davidson, from the English department here at Duke, wrote an excellent op-ed on the issue in The Chronicle last week, reproduced at Hastac:

We Can't Ignore the Influence of Digital Technologies
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 53, Issue 29, Page B20

May the backlash continue!


Anonymous said...

Though it pains me immensely, I am forced to disagree....


Anonymous said...

I have lost too many points in my courses by using wikipedia. Ive had it happen way too many times that something I read on wikipedia ended up being false. I just cant rely on wikipedia in general, though a few accurate facts may be in there as well.

Bill Victor said...

I will not allow wikipedia as a legitimate source I will however encourage students to go there as an introduction and as a gateway to other material. I find wikipedia to be useful in that regard.

Anonymous said...

It is unfair to say that criticisms of Wikipedia are largely made by people who are fearful of the technology and/or don't understand it. I can be a critic of Wikipedia and yet not be fearful nor ignorant of it; likewise I could be fearful of it, yet it does not necessarily follow that I would also be critical of it.
Though I don't agree with the course of action that the folks at Middlebury decided to take, I think the basis for their decision has been unfairly judged to a certain degree. I don't think it was fear or ignorance. I think the decision was driven by the fact that faculty members were annoyed at student research laziness. Many undergrads only search Google, and only bother to look at the first 5 or so results, one of which will almost always be Wikipedia. They can't be bothered to extend their search to other electronic resources, much less print ones. Because faculty are annoyed at the laziness of student use of the internet for research, and because Google ranks Wikipedia so highly in just about every search, Wikipedia has become the representation of the larger issue of students' uncritical use of the internet for research.
Certainly I would not call for the banning of Wikipedia on the campus where I myself work. I understand Wikipedia better than most students here. And it is because I understand it so well that I tell students to use it with a great deal of caution as an academic research tool. Wikipedia is a behemoth that is ever-changing. It is difficult if not impossible to critique its overall value at any given point in time. That is why, I believe, there has been such a wide variety of opinions about its value. It's much like the elephant in the parable of the blind men and the elephant. What you think about Wikipedia largely depends upon what part of it you're "holding."

Judy Redman said...

I don't think that banning Wikipedia is a helpful way to go (except perhaps for lower grades in high school where students don't have the necessary skills to analyse and evaluate the information). It might be more useful to say that any "fact" found on Wikipedia must be able to be substantiated from another source with academic credibility before it can be used. It certainly points students to what sorts of things people think about issues and some of it is quite accurate. The exercise of validating data would be useful.

There's a saying amongst my 16 year old daughter's friends that goes something like "Of course it's true. Everyone knows it's true. Do I have to put it on Wikipedia before you'll believe me?" This says something both about the potential problems of Wikipedia and the awareness of students about those problems.

J. B. Hood said...


you should post this on SBL's forum, particularly given that your argument comes from the perspective of a teacher of religion.

And you're presuming that we as teachers are supposed to teach our students to think...I thought I just had to download the syllabus into their cranial hard-drives!

Andrew Criddle said...

I often find wikipedia very useful.

However there are certain subjects, eg anything to do with historical jesus research where articles are liable to end-up giving undue weight to minority points of view.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

The first comment to the Cathy Davidson piece (comment by "JuliaFelix" -- a pseudonym?) had a very interesting idea of assigning topics that are merely the short, "stub" articles in Wikipedia. Of course, the comment's additional suggestion of having the students contribute the essays to Wikipedia in place of the stubs may mean render the original idea less than sustainable in the long term.

Anonymous said...

Wikipedia is helpful as a general intro and a gateway to other links, but it should not be used in college papers of any level.

If you had a terminal disease, would you like to know that your doctor got his medical information from Wikipedia?

Sage said...

If I had a terminal disease, I probably wouldn't care where my doctor got his medical information.