Thursday, March 8, 2007

Editorial: Wikipedia with caution

Editorial: Wikipedia with caution
March 8, 2007
By Editorial Board

It is difficult not to love Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute ( With 1,674,086 articles in English alone, it provides anyone with Internet access the ability to get fast, free information on anything from the New Orleans Mint (operational until 1909), to the biography of Weird Al Yankovic (he started accordion lessons at age seven).

In February, the Department of History at Middlebury College forbade students from citing Wikipedia as a source in history papers and tests, also giving notice that students would not be given any breaks for mistaken knowledge they derived from the site.

The department’s decision received national attention, including a February 21 article in The New York Times, and much of the response has been negative. One op-ed printed in the Middlebury Campus, the school newspaper, likened the move to “censorship” and condemned the professors who advocated the ban.

We have a hard time understanding what all of the fuss is about. Middlebury’s new rule is hardly censorship. Students are not prohibited from viewing, discussing or disseminating anything from Wikipedia. Rather, history students have simply been officially told what should already be obvious: Wikipedia, however useful, is not something that should be cited in a serious academic context, and if it is used, it could reflect poorly on students’ work.

Most university-level students should be able to discern between Wikipedia and more reliable online sources like government databases and online periodicals. To be fair, some of Wikipedia’s entries are specific enough to be extremely valuable in studying or researching, but others are shallow, short, and occasionally completely inaccurate. There are many Web sites that can provide credible resources, but Wikipedia is not one of them, nor does it purport to be. Jimmy Wales, one of the founders of Wikipedia, told The Times that he does not even consider Middlebury’s action “a negative thing.”

Naturally, because it is a user-generated Web site, the articles are not always perfect, and should not be relied on as much as actual class materials. Wikipedia has even introduced a citation function where contributors can direct readers to other more well-established sources.

Yet even as we point out that college students ought to know better than to rely completely on Wikipedia, Middlebury’s ban seems a bit overzealous. Students are also supposed to use proper grammar and spelling in assignments, but rather than having an official policy against poor writing, most schools simply tell students what the standards are ahead of time.

It is the role of teachers to advise students what is acceptable; for some assignments it is conceivable that referencing Wikipedia as an example, rather than an authoritative source, might be useful. Instead of totally banning Wikipedia as an information source departmentally, history professors at Middlebury should have stressed or continued to stress that using it could hurt an individual’s performance in the class. Much like spelling and grammar, if students already know what is expected in terms of citations, any deviation from expectations will make grading easier for professors.

There was a point in time where all Internet sources were suspect for most academic uses. Thankfully, that is no longer the case. Research has certainly become easier and more accessible with online help, but some sites, like some books, are better than others. We still love Wikipedia and admit that it can be great for a quick definition or fact, but we won’t be citing it in any papers anytime soon.

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