Monday, March 19, 2007

Baruch professors and students weigh in on Wikipedia

Baruch professors and students weigh in on Wikipedia
Students and professors clash on the value of this free online encyclopedia
By: Jessica Baptiste
Issue date: 3/19/07
Section: Features

NYU student Diana Rosenthal, 21, reads Wikipedia every day. A history student, she has used the free online encyclopedia to research the medieval Spanish poets. But even though she likes the sources, footnotes and links that Wikipedia provides at the end of the articles, the student doesn't cite it as a source for academic papers. Rosenthal thinks that students who do so are lazy for not utilizing more reliable, conservative research methods. And she may have a point.

There has been speculation over Wikipedia's credibility ever since its launch in 2001. Most recently, The New York Times ran an article about Middlebury College's history department's decision to prohibit students from citing Wikipedia as a source on papers and exams. The move came after a history professor Neil Waters' discovered that many of his students used false information that they retrieved from Wikipedia about Japanese history.

Should members of Baruch faculty follow the example of Middlebury and ban the site from classrooms? "Even as department chair, I wouldn't tell my faculty whether they can or cannot permit their students to use it," says Professor Glenn Petersen, Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department. "But I do think it's important for professors to discuss with their students just what use of it they'll permit," he adds.

"Baruch should do a better job of enforcing the no-smoking areas outside of the building doorways - that's far more dangerous to our health than the use of Wikipedia," says Professor of Journalism Josh Mills.

Some members of Baruch faculty also disapprove of students using Wikipedia - agreeing, that although convenient, it may not be trusted as a reliable source. One of them, Professor of English Carl Rollyson, stated his plans to rewrite the entry on Rebecca West because "it does not provide a clear sense of her importance."

But in Dec. 2005, the scientific journal Nature published the results of an investigation where scholars compared 42 articles in Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica. The study revealed four errors in an average Britannica article, but only three errors in a similar article published on In response, the encyclopedia's founder Jimmy Wales stated that his goal was to be on the same level of accuracy as Britannica or better.

But Jerry Bornstein, deputy chief librarian for public services at Baruch College, stated that Britannica criticized the methodology that was used to judge the validity of their articles and complained that the Nature's researchers had modified articles. When it came down to the fine details, the scholars found that the Britannica offered better written and organized articles than Wikipedia.

"We should approach information critically, whether it is from Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica or a peer-reviewed scholarly journal article," said Arthur Downing, chief librarian of the William and Anita Newman Library.

Bornstein feels that students should be extremely cautious about the information they receive from Wikipedia since Village Voice reported that the person who authored the most articles on the site was only 17 years old. "The founders of Wikipedia are very proud of what they call their 'anti-credentialist' attitude," he points out.

Bornstein recalled a student who relied on Wikipedia to get information about the Microsoft Corporation last semester, but didn't learn that Bill Gates was stepping down as the Chief Operating Officer. Other students found the correct information on the company's Web site and in various databases like LexisNexis and Factiva.

But Edward Drakhlis, sophomore, found Wikipedia to be advantageous when he did research for a presentation on Costco. He found details about the company's history on Wikipedia that were not on the firm's own Web site.

"The advantage is that it's so easy," says Dennis Slavin, Associate Provost, "But ease shouldn't be the primary qualification." He notes that the qualifications for Wikipedia articles are unknown. Therefore, he adds, there is no way to evaluate the credibility of sources.

Wikipedia is usually one of the first few entries that appear in Google searches. Downing explains that ranking of results on Google is based on the PageRank algorithm that was developed by Google's founders. It produces results based on the number of sites referring to the search.

"I suppose that the high scores for Wikipedia articles are greatly due to the fact that entries in Wikipedia refer to one another and the referring pages are from Wikipedia, which is linked from many Web sites," Downing says. Also, Mills believes that people can manipulate Google search results.

With the easy accessibility of Google and the Internet in general, students are prone to not think about being meticulous when it comes to doing research. Compared to using the library's databases, finding information on Wikipedia is much faster. Professor of English Michael Miller points out that students will always take short cuts if they have the opportunity.

"It [Wikipedia] keeps explanations relatively simple and loses bias on topics," says Elise Kairys. A senior, she used the site to sleuth for term paper ideas and preliminary research. "Sometimes you can find things on Wikipedia that you can't find as easily on other sites," she says.

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