Wikipedia encyclopedia is banned at some colleges
Issue date: 3/29/07 Section: News
The Chronicle (Duke)
(U-WIRE) DURHAM, N.C. -Although Wikipedia - like Google - has carved its way into the common vernacular, some say students should think twice before turning to the free online encyclopedia for their academic work.
Middlebury College's history department recently banned Wikipedia as a source for student papers, and professors at other schools, including the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California at Los Angeles, have followed suit.
Although Duke University has yet to take an authoritative stance on the site, the academic ban has been supported by Wikipedia itself.
"We came out and said it was a sensible policy," said Sandra Ordonez, the Wikipedia Foundation's communications manager. "Students shouldn't be citing Wikipedia or any other encyclopedia for term papers or exams. It is not a primary source, not an authoritative source."
Sarah Deutsch, dean of social sciences and professor of history, said Wikipedia has not been a major concern with undergraduates at Duke. "Our students know better to identify sources and check the validity of information," she said.
Ordonez said Wikipedia could be helpful to students in other ways.
"It's a really good place to start your research and get a global picture of the topic," she said. "Some professors actually use Wikipedia to show students how to use different sources to conduct research."
Margaret Humphreys, professor of history and associate clinical professor of medicine, said Wikipedia might be useful as a starting point but should not be the last source students check.
"The message of unreliability should be out there," she said. "The student could have written the article. His buddy next door could have changed it just for fun. Supposedly, there are these watchdogs - but who are they?"
Professors may also view a student citing Wikipedia as lazy, Humphreys added.
"It's not immoral or bad to use it - just stupid," she said.
Junior David Fiocco said he has used Wikipedia to find background information and references for papers but added that he would never cite the encyclopedia as a source.
"It's not reliable," he said. "But if I have a question about something I'm reading, I'll definitely Wikipedia it."
Freshman Natalie Harrison said her professors have advised against using Wikipedia.
"All my professors say, 'Don't trust Wikipedia,'" she said. "At the beginning of the semester, one of my professors went on a 10-minute rant." Harrison agreed that college students should not turn to Wikipedia for their research but said she was surprised Middlebury College had to create an explicit policy.
"The school shouldn't have to tell students they shouldn't be using it in that way," she said. "They should be smart enough to realize Wikipedia is all nonsense."
Despite warnings from professors, some students said they have made the mistake of citing the source in the past.
Sophomore Nate Jones said he once cited Wikipedia on a paper, under the impression that it was similar to Encyclopaedia Britannica.
"[My friend] told me not do it, and I never did it again," he said. "I didn't know it was easily corruptible. If a professor sees that, he'd be instantly skeptical." Jones added that he thought Encyclopaedia Britannica was "perfectly legit."
Although most professors and students acknowledged the problems with citing Wikipedia as an academic source, others nonetheless commended the site for its potential informational value.
Joshua Davis, lecturing fellow and teaching assistant professor of mathematics, who is also a Wikipedia moderator, said the site should have the same standing as any other encyclopedia.
"You don't want to use any encyclopedia as a source for research - just as a starting point," he said. He added that different subject areas might treat the use of Wikipedia differently. "I imagine it would make a big difference to a history teacher," he said. "You can't truly rely on Wikipedia on either facts or interpretations, which could be misguided or biased."
One proponent of the resource is Eric Katz, an assistant research professor of mathematics and a self-proclaimed "Wikipedia addict." He said the encyclopedia's math-related articles were relatively accurate, adding that he has often recommended the site to students.
"In one of my lessons, Wikipedia was my main reference," he said.
Davis said Wikipedia, which allows virtually anyone to edit most of its articles, has recently developed an undeserved bad reputation.
"A lot of people in the media who write about Wikipedia don't understand the many different mechanisms for increasing reliability and peer review," Davis said. "If someone vandalizes one of my articles, I can detect it quickly and fix it."