Tuesday, February 27, 2007

BU professors question Wikipedia’s validity as a source

BU professors question Wikipedia’s validity as a source
By Ashley Tarr
Pipe Dream

Online encyclopedias and research sites may be making it easier for college students to procrastinate, but with the recent controversy surrounding the popular reference site, Wikipedia, it’s not surprising that opinions are widespread here at Binghamton University, too.

Wikipedia.org is an open encyclopedia in which virtually anyone with an Internet connection can add, remove or edit the posted information. The site, established in 2001, has recently come under criticism by scholars who claim that the tool is more of a source for background information — if that at all — than anything else.
“I do not consider Wikipedia an academic source, basically because people can change it at any time and there’s no control over what goes in and out of it,” said professor Fran Goldman of the Asian and Asian American Studies Program at BU. “In other words, it can be there today, someone can decide they don’t like the way it’s written, go in there and change it, and it’s not there tomorrow.”

Goldman’s opinions are supported by a recent entry for BU President Lois B. DeFleur. The site originally claimed that DeFleur was “widely recognized as a blatant racist,” among other listings concerning her professional background.
“We were unaware of the existence of this page. It seems to have been created by someone who is unaware of President DeFleur’s extensive academic work in the field of juvenile delinquency in Latin America, police enforcement of drug laws and occupational socialization,” said Gail Glover, director of media relations, in a statement about the entry. “Since anyone can contribute to Wikipedia, I certainly would encourage students not to use Wikipedia as their sole research source.”

The listing was later changed to, “She is an authority on juvenile delinquency in Latin America and has done extensive work in the fields of deviant behavior and occupational socialization.”

Goldman’s feelings are reflected throughout other departments as well, as professor John McNulty of the political science department does not support the use of the site for legitimate information.
“… It’s problematic for precisely the reason that it’s not checked carefully; people could put anything there. A student could change a Wikipedia page him or herself and then source it, theoretically,” McNulty said. “Wikipedia can’t be your sole source, something has to be second source, particularly with anything that is controversial … it would not be a sufficient source for that kind of thing.”

A Feb. 21 article in The New York Times reported that the history department at Middlebury College in Vermont banned students from citing Wikipedia as a research source. The article reported that Jimmy Wales, one of Wikipedia’s founders, said he didn’t consider the Middlebury policy “as a negative thing at all.”

McNulty maintains that for checking something like a birthday, Wikipedia is somewhat sufficient. But when it comes to looking at something controversial, like President Bush’s invasion of Iraq with respect to the oil companies, the information on Wikipedia would be “completely unkosher.”

According to McNulty, the only thing a student can cite Wikipedia for is something that does not need a citation in the first place.

“… I like the idea behind it because it’s kind of democratic in that people contribute to these sites that are supposed to convey knowledge to everyone else. But the real problem is that they’re not peer review,” said history department visiting professor Gregory Geddes. “… And there is a lot of information that I’ve found that people have used … and it’s just simply incorrect … and so I don’t allow people to use it.”

Although many professors at BU do not approve of the site, some faculty members feel differently.

Both Susan Currie, the associate director of library services, and Kate Bouman, the reference librarian, feel that the site is very useful for pop culture and ultimately is as valuable as any other reference in the library.

“I think Wikipedia is a great place to start, and I love it for popular culture; it’s a great place to look because a lot of things in popular culture you won’t find in even the online versions of encyclopedias,” said Currie. “You shouldn’t cite it as a scholarly source, but I don’t think you should cite an encyclopedia because those are places to start.”

Bouman agreed, saying that the links on the site can sometimes be valuable, but it’s something students have to be cautious about.

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