Friday, March 16, 2007

Wikipedia—is it factual or wild fiction

Wikipedia—is it factual or wild fiction
Sarah Johannigmeier • Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2007

Many students begin research projects by jumping to Google or Wikipedia to gather background information on their topic. But students might want to watch out for entries that could lead them to erroneous information.

Wikipedia has recently come under scrutiny at Middlebury College in Vermont due to numerous students citing faulty information.

The college’s history department issued a complete ban on citing Wikipedia, creating national media attention and forcing professors and students alike to question the site’s reliability.

Sophomore Lynsey Thrasher said she uses Wikipedia to look up a variety of topics. She said she finds it helpful for different biology and chemistry papers. She has not experienced any problems with fictional entries, and she has used it in papers for UE professors.

Burton Kirkwood, assistant vice president of academic affairs, said he has not heard anything about UE banning citations of the web site, although he said many professors will not allow students to cite it in their research papers.

Tiffany Griffith, assistant professor of English, said Wikipedia is not a great place to obtain scholarly research, and she discourages students from using it in formal papers.

“I think it’s important for students to realize you can’t trust everything on the Internet,” she said. “I try to educate students on what’s acceptable for formal research.”

Wikipedia operates as an online encyclopedia that anyone can freely edit. The home page clearly states this and does not hide the fact that anyone can add information—fact or fiction. According to the web site, inappropriate changes are usually removed quickly, and repeat offenders can be blocked from editing.

Kirkwood said it is rare for students to utilize Wikipedia for research papers, but occasionally students try to include it. He said he explains to students it is not acceptable for college research and asks them to remove it from their paper.

“I look at some sources and sometimes challenge the quality,” Kirkwood said. “I tend to encourage students to look at sites connected with professional journals where they can obtain a lot of information.”

Griffith said she tries to educate her students on reliable web sites and valid sources for research. She said most students realize Wikipedia should not be cited in formal papers, but some students need a bit of convincing after using it for high school research.

Freshman Corey Lannert said he has used Wikipedia for research. He believed the information to be accurate, but admitted he just took it for fact.

“I used the web site in high school, but coming here to college, the professors have kind of changed my direction of thinking towards it,” he said.

It is up to UE professors themselves to determine whether citations are allowable and not all professors prohibit its use. Griffith said Wikipedia could be a good place to start gathering information, but ultimately students need to look to journals for the most accurate information.

Unfortunately, the web site’s range of information is so vast, it becomes difficult for Wikipedia to manage and edit all articles to keep information accurate.

One major gaffe occurred in 2005 when an article claimed that John Seigenthaler Sr. was thought to be involved in the assassination of both President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Bobby Kennedy.

Seigenthaler became enraged at the false biography, and even after contacting the web site about the error, it took four months for the information to be removed, long enough to spread to other fact-gathering sites.

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