Wednesday, February 28, 2007

College has problem with Wikipedia sourcing

College has problem with Wikipedia sourcing
By: Stephen Bartlett
Staff Writer
February 28, 2007

PLATTSBURGH — Plattsburgh State’s History Department has located Lucifer.

Wikipedia is apparently the devil.

“It is Satan for the History Department,” said history major Jennie McFadden, a junior at Plattsburgh State.

OK, maybe Wikipedia is not literally the horned creature from Hades, but the free online encyclopedia has been the center of growing unrest among the university community nationwide. Some colleges have officially banned students from citing Wikipedia as a reference for their papers.

Plattsburgh State has not taken this step, leaving it up to the discretion of individual professors, who overwhelmingly agree that, while students can turn to the online encyclopedia for background, they’d better not use it as their sole research source or include it on the reference page of their papers.

“I always tell students never to cite it,” said Plattsburgh State history Professor Dr. James Lindgren. “Any encyclopedia or common source like that is too simplistic. What we in the History Department urge students to use are primary and secondary sources. They can use Wikipedia or the encyclopedia for their own background information, but it is never to be cited.”

Lindgren admitted that is not an official Plattsburgh State rule but said it is the “common sense in the trade.”

“We can’t ban the use of Wikipedia,” he said.

Wikipedia, launched in January 2001, is a free, collaborative online encyclopedia operated by a non-profit organization and containing more than 6 million articles. It ranks among the 12 most visited Web sites worldwide.

Its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the site, which has caused problems with some individuals purposely posting false information, though they can, in turn, be banned from editing the site and other people posting information while not being considered experts in the field they are writing about.

Wikipedia has taken steps to improve this portion of the site by restricting the editing of some subjects.

Still, errors get through, sometimes on purpose — such as when David Klatell, vice dean and professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and his students altered information on Queen Elizabeth to prove how unreliable the site could be and see how long it would take before it was corrected.

The incorrect information remained on the site for more than three days, which meant any students who looked up Queen Elizabeth during that time, for example, wrote about a birth date that was off by about 500 years and likely thought the queen was strange for some of the horrific names she gave her dogs.

More recently, the New York Times reported that Middlebury College’s History Department banned students from citing Wikipedia on papers and exams after noticing students relying heavily on the online Web site for about a year. In some cases, the Vermont college students unknowingly incorporated incorrect information into history papers, citing Wikipedia.

“I would be very upset if a student cited it as the only source of information for a paper,” said Dr. Douglas Skopp of Plattsburgh State’s History Department.

But he and others understand the temptation to rely solely on Wikipedia.

“It is electronic and so easy,” said Lindgren.

In fact, Skopp is pleased that the ease of using Wikipedia has resulted in more people looking up information, but, when it comes to college papers, he wants students to find ways to view concrete evidence.

“Many Wikipedia articles are excellent beginning points,” Skopp said. “But students sometimes use them as the end point, and then there is the concern, because a Wikipedia article, or anything summarized or abbreviated, is not a full story.”

“We want students to have a larger understanding of how knowledge is accumulated and find ways to understand that knowledge themselves, and Wikipedia shortcuts the process. But that is not to say Wikipedia is not useful.”

Many Plattsburgh State students seem to understand this.

“I use Wikipedia for basic information, but I would not rely on it, and I
certainly wouldn’t cite it,”
said Robert Asher, a senior at Plattsburgh State.

Some students steer clear of Wikipedia.

“I have heard bad things about it,” said Kelly Powers, a Plattsburgh State nursing student. “I don’t think it is scholarly at all, and I would rather go to the library.”

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