Professors question merit of Wikipedia citations
March 2, 2007
By Nick Day
Wikipedia.org, the popular online encyclopedia, offers users instant access to over a million articles ranging from the Battle of Waterloo to Barry Mills to Brussels sprouts. But a recent decision by the Middlebury College history department to ban citing the ultra-convenient, yet notoriously inaccurate, Web site on papers and exams raises an important question: What role should Wikipedia play at Bowdoin, particularly in research-intensive courses?
In January, the Middlebury history department voted unanimously to adopt a statement that affirms, "[While] Wikipedia is extraordinarily convenient and, for some general purposes extremely useful...it suffers inevitably from inaccuracies deriving in large measure from its unique manner of compilation."
The Bowdoin history department has not discussed a formal ban of Wikipedia citations as a department. However, some Bowdoin professors seem opposed to such a move.
"I think banning Wikipedia outright is a mistake," said Associate Professor of History and Asian Studies Tom Conlan. "It is important to understand what Wikipedia is, and to use it skeptically."
Assistant Professor of History David Gordon added, "Wikipedia is a powerful generator of perspectives on the past. In my view, it would be shortsighted for history departments to ignore it."
Neil Waters, a history professor at Middlebury and the catalyst behind the ban, raised the issue at a faculty meeting after he noticed that students in his classes were citing inaccurate information from the Web site.
"I saw an increasing percentage of information being drawn from the Web site [in my classes]," he said.
Waters attributes this phenomenon to the "extreme convenience" of Wikipedia and ill-informed first-year students who had been permitted to cite Wikipedia for assignments in high school.
"I had a lot of freshmen in my courses citing Wikipedia because their high school teachers had told them that it was okay to do so," he said.
Waters pointed out that the ban does not prevent students from using the site all together, but rather deters them from using Wikipedia as an authoritative source.
"Students enrolled in history classes [at Middlebury] can use Wikipedia. They just can't cite anything [from the Web site]."
But Associate Professor of Government and Asian Studies Henry Laurence is skeptical that such a ban would prove effective without further restrictions.
"A formal ban seems pretty arbitrary to me unless it includes all other less-than-ideal sources, which would be a very long list," Laurence wrote in an e-mail to the Orient.
Laurence, along with Conlan and Gordon, stress the importance of utilizing primary sources—rather than tertiary sources like Wikipedia—in academia.
"All the encyclopedias make mistakes," said Conlan. "You really need to get down to primary sources or course materials."
Gordon believes that Wikipedia can be employed for "background research...or to gain insights into social or popular perspectives on a historical episode."
However, he rejects the notion that Wikipedia can be used for legitimate academic work, and strongly encourages students to examine "recommended primary sources or peer-reviewed scholarship."
Tricia Welsch, chair of the film studies department, reminds students "a couple classes before an assignment is due," that with sources like Wikipedia, "you don't know the background of the authors of specific articles."
She also stresses to her students that when writing papers or studying for exams, "you want the best sources rather than the most convenient."
Welsch expressed surprise that colleges should have to deal with students using Wikipedia in the first place.
"It's really puzzling to me why students enrolled in college would uphold the lowest possible standard of information gathering," she said. "Institutions of higher learning should be about forming great habits of mind."
"The bigger issue is that we should be teaching students how to engage in serious scholarly analysis," he said. "And Wikipedia doesn't go very far at all in helping with that endeavor—it's just too superficial."