Saturday, November 7, 2009

Should I use Wikipedia in my search for information?

"Don't use Wikipedia. Do not use any websites, except for .gov sites. Cite at least one print source." While teaching or helping some introductory English classes in Library workshops, I often hear these kinds of requirements imposed on the students. Instructors often have good reasons for setting these limitations. They want students to get out of their comfort zones. Students do fall back on what they know, using search engines to find their information. This may have worked well while they went to high school, but at the college level it usually does not suffice.

Typically, I like to talk about reference resources and how they can be useful for students when they begin their research. An encyclopedia article can provide background information, the kind that instructors may expect them to know already. College instructors expect more than a book report summary from college students. They want students to engage in the subject matter, evaluate sources, and analyze ideas critically. I suspect that some students rise to the occasion and begin to develop critical thinking skills when asked to look for quality sources.

Does this mean that students should not use Wikipedia? This ban of Wikipedia would not support appeals for critical thinking. Wikipedia, in many cases, provides background information that can be useful when starting a research project. Like other reference resources, it can inform individuals about the various aspects of the issue at hand, which can then prompt them to narrow their topic down a bit more. Additionally, its articles can bring to light keywords that would improve searching results when one goes to the article databases, or one's university catalog.

Most students are unaware of the fact that most academic libraries purchase subscriptions to online reference materials. Encyclopedia Britannica, Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, and Oxford Reference Online are a few encyclopedias for which institutions purchase access.

I just finished a great article titled "Wikipedia: friend or foe?" written by Kathy West and Janet Williamson at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. In 2007 they began a study to assess the quality of Wikipedia articles. As librarians, they had not used Wikipedia very much, preferring more authoritative sources. How did they assess the articles? "In the absence of credentialed authors, what criteria can be used to measure article quality? We suggest that articles which are objective, accurate, complete and clearly presented are quality articles" (268).

Their thorough search of the literature, conscientious methods, and careful analysis of the results deserves some praise. I appreciate that they approached this study professionally, they they did not seem to let bias cloud their perspectives. For example, they acknowledge some flaws in their methods that influenced the results. In order to do a good analysis, they captured 106 Wikipedia articles as pdfs. They did not check the hyperlinks that would have explained certain concepts, and as a result they admit that "this significantly affected our ratings of individual articles' accuracy and completeness in that it limited the ability to achieve a full understanding of the articles. [...] Had we been able to view the outward links, the completeness scores would have been substantially higher" (267).

Go read this article. They give a listing of reasons why Wikipedia may be considered a friend, according to the results of their article assessments:

  • "its breadth of information including a substantial amount of unique information;
  • its ability to cover truly current events;
  • its ability to meet the diverse needs of both general and specialist readers;
  • its objectivity;
  • its reasonable accuracy; and
  • its accessibility -- it is available 24/7 from our desktops at no charge" (269).

How might it be a foe?
  • "its inconsistency--there are articles which are poorly written, contain unsubstantiated information, and/or provide shallow coverage of a topic" (269).

It appears that the authors' perceptions of Wikipedia improved as a result of doing this study. They consider Wikipedia to be improving as well. Fewer cases of abuse are occurring i.e. vandalism. "In addition, more references are being added" (269). This last point hold true in my experience. On occasion, I will go to an Oxford Reference Online (ORO) article in class, encourage students to look for background information, find keywords, and look for a list of references. Too often it seems that there are not any cited sources in the ORO or the Encyclopedia Britannica, but there is frequently a list of references in the Wikipedia articles.

Students should be allowed to consult Wikipedia as a launching point for their research project, but they need to remember not to use it as a source for their paper. Rather, they should consult the references and cite them. It is not necessary to cite background information or common knowledge. That's what researchers are expected to know already. Cite the books and articles instead. Use criteria for analyzing your sources and develop critical thinking skills.

Full citation: West, Kathy and Janet Williamson. "Wikipedia: friend or foe?" Reference Services Review 37.3 (2009): 260-71.

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