Monday, April 2, 2007

Source of the problem: Colleges begin to ban Wikipedia

Source of the problem: Colleges begin to ban Wikipedia as cited reference in academic work, SU leaves it up to professor
Matt Reilly
Issue date: 4/2/07
Section: Front Page

With nothing more than a computer, Internet access and a cruel sense of humor, an Internet vandal edited the Wikipedia article of comedian Sinbad earlier this month, duping the world into thinking the actor had died. It took a while for the confusion to clear when Sinbad told the Associated Press:

"Saturday I rose from the dead and then died again."

This is just another example of the issues being created by the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit: Wikipedia.

The Web site has seen rapid growth in recent years - there were 38 million users in the United States in December - and it was cited too often in academic essays for the history department at Middlebury College, a small liberal arts school in Vermont. The department's decision in late February to ban the site as a cited source brought the criticism of the national news media, placing it at the center of a debate that has engulfed academia, journalism and legal studies.

Tufts University, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Pennsylvania have also adopted similar policies.

Syracuse University, however, does not have a policy regarding Wikipedia. No school, college nor individual department has a policy officially banning the site, said Sandra Hurd, associate provost for academic affairs. Instead that decision is left up to the individual professor.

"That's the kind of thing faculty would really handle in their own class," she said.

One professor who has taken the initiative during the past three years to make sure his students don't reference the site is history professor Chris Kyle.

"While Wikipedia is a tremendously useful source, it is not a scholarly or critical source of information," he said. "The coverage is patchy, uneven."

The issue with using Wikipedia is that unlike peer-reviewed scholarly journals and critically-edited newspaper articles, there is not proper vetting, said Ian MacInnes, professor in the School of Information Studies. Vetting ensures that the article has been fact-checked and verified.

"There is a danger in relying on Wikipedia," he said. "You are going to have the potential to get information that isn't reliable."

Professor Scott Strickland, chair of the undergraduate history department at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, agrees that students should proceed with caution before engaging Wikipedia for research.

Strickland said he would rather students "use online sources that can be verified by print or archival sources elsewhere."

In his courses, Strickland said he finds the site problematic and has considered making a firm policy for his students. It is also the case that Wikipedia seems to be involved in cases of academic dishonesty in his classes - more often than not.

Both professors of history, Kyle has a firm policy and Strickland does not. The difference can exist because SU's history department has not even discussed banning Wikipedia and has no official policy on the site's use.

"SU's history department is in support of an absolute definition of academic freedom," Strickland said. Though he added he would be more pleased with a consistent policy regarding Internet sources in general, the best policy would only let students use Web sites that could be verified by other sources.

Kyle, on the other hand, said he would endorse a department-wide policy on Wikipedia but thinks all policies should be department specific - not encompassing an entire school or college.

Either way, Wikipedia, surprisingly, seems to support such policies throughout academia.

In an interview with "NBC Nightly News," Jim Redmond, a Wikipedia administrator and editor, said the ban at Middlebury "is a great idea. Students shouldn't even be tempted to use Wikipedia as an original source."

And the site's co-founder and chairman emeritus Jimmy Wales told The New York Times, "Basically, they are recommending exactly what we suggested - students shouldn't be citing encyclopedias. I would hope they wouldn't be citing Encyclopedia Britannica, either."

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