Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Citing trouble: Profs frown on Wikipedia

Citing trouble: Profs frown on Wikipedia
No local colleges prohibit using online tool, but officials don’t recommend it.
KRIS WERNOWSKY kwernowsky@timesleader.com
If you believe everything you read on Wikipedia, then golfer Fuzzy Zoeller is a pill-popping, wife-beating drunk; comedian Sinbad died of a heart attack; and the prime minister of Norway is a pedophile.

Believe with caution, scholars warn.

The free online service Wikipedia was launched in 2001 as an open-source encyclopedia with content submitted and edited by volunteers.

There is little, or no, academic editorial oversight of Wikipedia and its 1.68 million articles unlike its paper-bound predecessors that, while not perfect, were vetted and subject to peer review.

This disturbs college professors who notice increased citations of Wikipedia articles in research papers submitted by students. The history department at one Vermont college recently developed a policy that forbids the use of the online service.

Brian A. Pavlac, chairman of the King’s College history department, said students should never use Wikipedia as a primary source for research. If a student must use the site, Pavlac suggests using Wikipedia as a tertiary source, or a guidepost to lead students to other forms of more credible information.

“It has its value, but you have to be very careful with it,” said Pavlac, who teaches a research methods course at King’s. “Be aware of its limitations.”

While no area colleges forbid the use of Wikipedia for research, Middlebury College in Vermont took strict action in telling students they could not use it as a source for papers and exams.

Neil Waters, professor of Japanese studies at Middlebury, said he started to notice the trend last semester when his students’ final exams featured “the same nuggets of misinformation.” He drafted the policy, took it to the department and it passed.

A disclaimer on the Web site warns users that all articles are not of “encyclopedic quality from the start” and says that “many articles start their lives as partisan, and it is after a long process of discussion, debate and argument, that they gradually take on a neutral point of view reached through consensus.” In other words, even if an article contains some misinformation, it’s up to users and volunteers to weed out bad information in exchange for something truthful.

“I think, when Wikipedia works the way it’s supposed to, you can have a crummy article on Wikipedia and people can contribute what they know and it will get better and better,” Waters said. “My view of human nature is not quite so optimistic. The same people who can improve things and make them better; other people can jump in, out of ignorance or malcontent can contribute to its inaccuracy.”

Of course comedian Sinbad isn’t dead, but this past weekend, a Wikipedia posting claimed the actor who starred in the television series “A Different World” and the film “Jingle All The Way” died on the morning of March 14 as a result of a heart attack.

“Saturday I rose from the dead and then died again,” the funnyman told an Associated Press reporter.

Golfer Zoeller didn’t take too kindly to his place in Wikipedia. He filed a lawsuit, not against the Web service, but against the Miami-based company that owns a computer where an article claiming the golfer abused drugs and alcohol was written.

The stalwart weekly news publication The New Yorker recently admitted one of its writers cited a Wikipedia administrator who edited articles and claimed to be a tenured theologian with a Ph.D. The administrator was actually a 24-year-old community college dropout.

Kevin Norris, a reference librarian at the University of Scranton who teaches a course in electronic research, said Wikipedia’s use by college students says less about online encyclopedia, and more about the students who choose to use it.

“I think most students know it’s not the best source, but it’s easy to do an Internet search,” Norris said. “We all remember what it was writing research papers in college. They’re usually started the night before they’re due. People don’t always pick the best sources, but sometimes they pick the easiest sources.”

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