Wikipedia – Good for Research or Not?

Wikipedia is that online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. And it has made the headlines this week when a student created a software program that allows you to figure out who has edited articles from the history of computer IP addresses that have accessed the site. It’s pretty interesting to see who has edited what.

Bibliobloggers (first by Ben Witherington III and then by Jim West) have begun commenting on this and the usefulness of Wikipedia and other internet resources for academic research. But I really must side with Mark Goodacre on this one. Good on you, Mark, for encouraging your students to engage their resources 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 often 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.

It wasn’t until the last class of my second M.A. program (at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics) over a year ago that I was required to do some internet research for a class project. We were supposed to interact critically with the sources we found. While I skipped “Andy’s paper” on the topic I was researching (even though he got an ‘A’), I did include the Wikipedia article among other quality sources that I found. Comparing the resources allowed me to evaluate the Wikipedia article. I found that although other internet resources went into more detail and were perhaps more accurate in some respects, the Wikipedia article had value that other resources did not. And Wikipedia pointed me to other resources as well!

The unique aspect of Wikipedia that makes it attractive as a source is that it is easily editable by anybody. Although that may also be its greatest weakness, it is at least potentially a great check for accuracy and comprehensiveness. Their strict “no original research” and “neutral point-of-view” policies mean that only verifiable information is allowed. These seem to be good checks for reliability. Of course, there is always the question of the Wikipedia editors’ bias.

Wikipedia doesn’t need to be ruled out as a source. But we do need to critically assess anything we read.

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4 Responses to “Wikipedia – Good for Research or Not?”

  1. Anthony Says:

    Thanks for this commentary on Wikipedia. As a freshman composition instructor, whose goal is to prepare students to do research and writing at the college level, I tend to discourage my students from using Wikipedia, since I generally discourage the use of internet sources. I know that there are good sources on the net, but my students generally have not developed that skill to effectively evaluate such sources. This of course is something I need to teach them, but while they develop their critical skills I encourage them to use traditional, scholarly, print sources. As a result of reading your post, however, I think I should develop a lesson where they pretend to be editors of a Wikipedia entry wherein I would give them guidelines for assessing information and have them do a pseudo-rewrite of an entry.

  2. Zephyr Says:

    Great idea about the exercise in which your students would do a pseudo-rewrite of a Wikipedia article. Mark Goodacre at the NT Gateway Weblog even says – http://ntgateway.com/weblog/2007/08/more-on-how-to-engage-with-wikipedia.html

    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” – http://ntgateway.com/weblog/2007/03/in-defence-of-wikipedia.html, with further discussion under the label “Wikipedia” – http://ntgateway.com/weblog/labels/Wikipedia.html). 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.

  3. Ted M. Gossard Says:

    Good point, Zephyr.

    For myself, I’ll continue to use it since it’s so handy. Most of it is accurate, I would think, overall. But for one knowledgeable in a field, they could well be aware of discrepancies. It’s quite a project to have and maintain, i.e. Wikipedia, of course.

  4. Zephyr Says:

    Hi Ted,

    Yes, I think Wikipedia is probably a good resource overall, especially if it’s used the way you would use any other encyclopedia. I don’t do academic research by looking at encyclopedias, unless I use them to give myself an introductory overview of something or use them as a resource to direct me to other research.


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