Controversy over use of Wikipedia in academic papers arrives at Smith
Issue date: 3/8/07
Middlebury College, a prestigious liberal arts school in Vermont, recently announced that its history department had banned the citation of Wikipedia for history papers and exams.
Don Wyatt, chairman of the department, said a total ban on Wikipedia is not practical, as it is too useful of a resource to expect students to never consult it. At Middlebury, a discussion on the new policy took place last week.
This decision puts Middlebury at the forefront of a growing debate within journalism and academia over what respect Wikipedia articles should be given and if they are legitimate sources of information. Approximately 38 million people visited the English language version of the site in December 2006. Wikipedia is also easy to find; it frequently appears at the top of many Google searches and access is completely free.
Wikipedia use is also prevalent at Smith. Bruce Sajdak, coordinator of information literacy for Smith College libraries, said Wikipedia "symbolizes the best and worst of the Internet. It's the best because everyone gets his/her say and can state their views. It's the worst because people who use it uncritically take for truth what is only opinion." He added that he would not support a decision to ban Wikipedia at Smith. "I am against censorship of any kind. Smith students have the ability to distinguish between rumor and reality. If it is used, it is the responsibility of the writer to show that the credentials of the article are valid," Sajdak said.
Smith history lecturer Jennifer Hall-Witt said that she has never had a student use Wikipedia as a source. She also doesn't use it for her own research. "I don't use Wikipedia for work related to my own research or writing," she said. "Most frequently I use Wikipedia to look up basic biographical information on people when I am preparing for class and don't already know a lot about a particular person. I usually read not only the Wikipedia entry on that person, but also, if I'm doing a quick web search, I look for biographical information written by known scholars on .edu Web sites."
Yet she agreed with aspects of the policy. "I agree with the logic of what I remember reading about the policy: that while it is a useful starting point for collecting basic information, it's not necessarily a reliable source to cite in a research paper," she said. "In my mind, the problem is not just the lack of reliability but also that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia."
Assistant History Professor Darcy Buerkle does not see the need for a ban on Wikipedia. She said, "I wouldn't suggest a ban on Wikipedia. It's not an adequate way to deal with student research skills." Buerkle said she uses Wikipedia for "quick facts" and views the problem as "a Google issue." "You search for a date, and it comes up and you end up looking at it," she said. "You are never seeking it out." Buerkle also said she has never had a student use Wikipedia as a source in a history paper.
While many students use Wikipedia frequently, few use it when it comes to researching papers. Kerri Hart-Morris '08, a history major, said that she uses Wikipedia "to look up terms I don't understand or to help me study for the identification portions of exams. I usually get my definitions from other books." Hart-Morris said she would oppose a Smith history department ban on the use of Wikipedia.
Grace Livingston '10 expressed an encompassing opinion about Wikipedia. "It's scary - you don't know who is writing the articles. I don't use it, but it's good for shallow research," she said.