Academic approval: Wikipedia no longer seen - even by educators - as a den of info iniquity

Academic approval: Wikipedia no longer seen - even by educators - as a den of info iniquity

February 6th, 2015 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

Wikipedia

Wikipedia

Illustration by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

"Wikipedia can be wrong."

Especially when written in all caps, that's hardly a confidence-inspiring start to a general disclaimer for an Internet encyclopedia. That's particularly true when it's the Internet encyclopedia itself making the statement.

Wikipedia's self-description continues with a series of equally dire warnings, ones that seem better suited to the boarded-up entrance of an abandoned uranium mine than an online information free-for-all:

"Use at your own risk."

"We are not doctors."

"We can't help with law."

Wiki-responsibility

According to local university faculty and librarians, here are tips for effectively using Wikipedia as a research tool:

As with an encyclopedia, Wikipedia should be considered a starting point for research, not the final source. Use it as a means of gaining a general overview of a topic and a launching point for further research.

If information in an article seems relevant, begin tracking it back to its primary source by using the links, documents and bibliographic entries cited in the references section at the bottom of the article.

Be skeptical. If information seems questionable, check for a citation. If none exists, seek out alternative, credible sources outside of Wikipedia.

Pay attention to Wikipedia's internal editing flags at the top of the article, such as "lacks historical information," "needs additional citations" or "written like personal reflection or opinion essay."

True lies

According to editors at PCWorld, the following are some of the worst examples of fraudulent information that made its way into Wikipedia entries (and since have been corrected):

1. Pop/rock vocalist Robbie Williams eats domestic pets in bars for money.

2. British soccer legend David Beckham once served as a goalkeeper in the 1700s in China.

3. Tennessean journalist and political figure John Seigenthaler was involved in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy.

4. Talk show host Conan O'Brien assaults sea turtles while canoeing.

5. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair worships Adolf Hitler.

Five pillars of Wikipedia

According to its over-arching mission statement, Wikipedia:

1. Is an encyclopedia

2. Is written from a neutral point of view

3. Is free content that anyone can use, edit and distribute

4. Editors should treat each other with respect and civility

5. Has no firm rules

BY THE NUMBERS

288: Languages that have at least some content represented on Wikipedia.

34.35 million: Articles represented across Wikipedia's various language editions.

4.7 million: Wikipedia articles available in English.

754 million: Edits that have been made to English content since Wikipedia went live in 2001.

23 million: Users registered to edit Wikipedia's English pages.

19 billion: About how many words comprise Wikipedia's articles, across all languages.

135,000: Registered editors who have made at least one edit to English content in the last 30 days.

192 million: Total Wikipedia pages

6,000: Articles created every day in January 2014

Source: Wikipedia (as of Feb. 3)

Despite Wikipedia's brazen forthrightness about its potential pitfalls, educators are no longer shooing students away from the site out of fear that its user-generated content is a treacherous will-o'-the-wisp tempting students off the academic straight and narrow.

"A lot of people will say to use it as a starting point," says Shehan McFadden, 18, the 2014 valedictorian of Signal Mountain High School.

Now in her first year at Tulane University in New Orleans, McFadden says she's come to appreciate the broad topical overviews in Wikipedia articles, which have helped to familiarize her with topics that come up in her courses.

"I often use it for basic background facts," she explains. "If we're talking about the Mon [people] of Thailand in one of my classes, I'll go to the Wikipedia page and read through that really quickly. I'd never cite it in a paper, but it's a good place to start."

And that's the crux, educators say. As long as students exercise sound academic judgment when using it, there's no reason Wikipedia can't be a launching point for sound research, even at a college level.

In the halls of academia, Wikipedia now is discussed openly. Students are being encouraged to take responsible advantage of its broad scope, convenience and continuously updated information as a tool to orient their research.

"Even in my own dissertation, I wouldn't necessarily use it as an end-all-be-all, but I'd look at it as a wonderful place to get some general knowledge," says Chad Littleton, a Ph.D. lecturer of English and interim director of the Writing and Communication Center at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Dragged away from a mid-morning perusal of — surprise — a Wikipedia article about AMC drama "Mad Men," Littleton says the site's reliance on self-regulation and user-generated content hasn't lead to nearly as much inaccuracy as its critics or its own warnings might suggest.

"There are certainly mistakes on Wikipedia because, for the large part, it is user-created, but they are also very, very on top of it as well," he says. "Sometimes it gets this reputation that anybody can change things, but anything that is changed generally goes through a process where it is flagged and looked at. "

Information army

Launched on Jan. 15, 2001, Wikipedia's multilingual archives have swollen to include millions of articles that are continually being written, updated and fact-checked by about 24 million registered user-editors, according to the site's self-reported statistics.

Want to know the latest on the Islamic State or the Charlie Hedbo shooting? Curious about Gilgamesh? How about dwarf planets? There are Wikipedia pages for all of them.

This mammoth sweep of information has made Wikipedia one of the most popular destinations on the Internet. According to online traffic monitoring site Alexa.com, Wikipedia currently is the sixth-most viewed site in America, just behind Yahoo.com. Every day, users spend an average of 4 1/2 minutes on the site and view 3 1/2 pages.

But that content ranges in credibility. Some are meticulously cited and feverishly updated pieces, which were proven in a 2005 study by the magazine Nature to rival equivalent entries in Encyclopaedia Britannica for accuracy. Others are topped by boxes filled with a host of warnings to readers about potential bias, outdated info and ghost-empty bibliographies.

In many cases, however, Wikipedia's army of volunteer editors has proven itself to be quick to quash inaccuracies.

In 2007, staffers from British computing magazine PC Pro inserted intentionally flawed "corrections" to 10 Wikipedia articles and waited to see what would happen after they appeared on the site's list of recently changed entries. Nine were corrected within an hour. During a subsequent test with 10 more errors — this time more subtle, less-glaring — 80 percent were corrected less than a day after posting.

And the site isn't nearly the editing free-for-all that some presume it to be. Above the more than 135,000 user-editors who can change Wikipedia content are about 1,300 administrators. Becoming an administrator involves passing a community review and confers numerous powers, including the ability to restrict editing of certain pages or block users for acts of "vandalism" such as inserting false information into articles.

Recently, Wikipedia's reputation for credibility was shown to have outpaced more traditional news outlets. According to an August 2014 poll by online market researcher YouGov, 64 percent of British adults trust Wikipedia articles "a great deal" or "a fair amount." Comparatively, 61 percent of poll respondents professed the same confidence in the BBC while 45 percent showed as much support for U.K. broadsheet national newspapers.

And, in a post titled "What's Wrong with Wikipedia?" the Harvard College Writing Program suggests the website should be approached with "extreme caution" by students, but that it isn't without merit.

"There's nothing more convenient than Wikipedia if you're looking for some quick information," the post reads. "In fact, some instructors may advise students to read entries for scientific concepts on Wikipedia as a way to begin understanding those concepts.

"The fact that Wikipedia is not a reliable source for academic research doesn't mean that it's wrong to use basic reference materials when you're trying to familiarize yourself with a topic."

Class-sourcing

Since 2010, Wikipedia parent company Wikimedia's education arm, the Wiki Education Foundation, has been partnering with universities to support instructors who incorporate student projects to create and edit Wikipedia content into their curricula. In that time, says Wikipedia spokesman Eryk Salvaggio, there has been a "significant shift" in academics' opinions about the site.

"When we first started, we had some faculty tell us their department chairs would never go for it," he says. "Now, there's widespread acceptance among people we talk to that Wikipedia is here to stay, and the role of [academia] is to both improve the content on Wikipedia and to teach students how to use Wikipedia."

One of the best ways for students to understand the site and incorporate it into a research routine may be for them to contribute to it themselves through Wiki Education Foundation-supported partnerships, he says. The potential for the content they create to reach a vast audience tends to make students feel more invested in the academic process, Salvaggio says.

"With a term paper, a student's work is submitted to one reader, the instructor, and then left in a desk drawer," he says. "With a Wikipedia assignment, the same work becomes part of a free online resource that millions of people turn to every day.

"They take their assignments more seriously, knowing that millions of people might see it."

Closer than 10 feet

At Chattanooga State Community College, library instruction coordinator Brittany Richardson says Wikipedia generally comes up early in her discussions with students seeking research assistance.

Students often see it appear high atop a Google search and are tempted by it, but many are reluctant to use it out of fears about its credibility. Her job, she says, is teaching them to develop "information literacy" skills to help them judge if they should trust what they're reading, whether on Wikipedia or any other Internet-based source.

"A lot of our library instruction has moved in that direction," Richardson says. "I want to hear what they think about [a site]. I think many of them want to give us the answer that 'Don't touch Wikipedia with a 10-foot pole' because they think it's what I want to hear, but that's not necessarily the whole story."

Caution

Even if students determine that a Wikipedia entry is well-researched and doggedly sourced, they shouldn't use it an academic paper. Instead, instructors say, they should treat it as a kind of "pre-search" to acquire a broad overview of a topic, to refine their search terms and to locate more authoritative sources from the article's references section.

In a 2005 interview with Bloomberg, Wikipedia co-founder and figurehead Jimmy Wales said his ultimate goal for the site was to rival the accuracy of lauded print encyclopedias.

"It's our intention to be [Encyclopedia] Britannica or better quality," he said. "Our policies and everything are designed with that goal in mind."

But like those long-standing paper compendiums, Wikipedia was never intended to be the terminal point for a serious researcher, he stressed.

"I don't think people should cite it, and I don't think people should cite Britannica, either — the error rate there isn't very good," Wales said. "People shouldn't be citing encyclopedias in the first place."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.


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