Friday, April 6, 2007

Wikipedia: is it worthwhile or worthless?

Wikipedia: is it worthwhile or worthless?
Travis Reynolds
Issue date: 4/5/07
Section: News

What would you do if something you trusted to be the truth, wasn't?

Every day, people all over the world perform research using our Internet friend named Wikipedia.

Its vast catalog of online encyclopedia entries cover just about everything a student could want to know. And its price tag -- $0 -- certainly beats paying hundreds for textbooks.

"The Free Encyclopedia" boasts millions of articles, has a powerful built-in search engine, operates in multiple languages and puts every scrap of its information a single click away. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Despite its versatility and simple interface, Wikipedia has suffered numerous critical attacks since its conception in 2001.

Users of the site know that its article pages may be freely supplied and altered by anyone, at any time, without so much as providing a name.

Its detractors claim that this system of anonymous contribution allows false information to be passed off as real and genuine facts to be vandalized by anyone with an Internet connection.

Contributors of Wikipedia are required to provide citations for articles; however, according to the site's own entry about itself as of March 29, "a drawback of this citation-only approach is that readers may be unable to judge the credibility of a cited source."

The issue with Wikipedia's credibility reaches into Eastern's classrooms, as some professors have forbidden citations of the popular encyclopedia.

Lisa Day-Lindsey, assistant professor of English, is one of them.

"Until I started banning its use," Day-Lindsey said, "Wikipedia appeared on many (students') bibliographies because of its high status in Google searches, its easy search capabilities and its attractive organization of information."

Day-Lindsey added, "I do not allow Wikipedia citations because whenever I have checked students' use of the site, I find factual errors and misinterpretations...many contributors post or edit entries with no authority whatsoever."

To this end, one of Wikipedia's co-founders, Larry Sanger, has begun work on a new version of the online encyclopedia.

The project, called Citizendium, functions based on the same system as Wikipedia; however, it requires contributors to provide their names by applying for a user account.

In addition, the project employs over 180 experts to investigate the veracity of articles.

"Anonymity can certainly speed up the development cycle of online projects," Sanger said in a press release, "but it also opens the door to the significant problems like vandalism and inaccuracy, as we've seen highlighted recently in the news."

The Citizendium project began in November 2006 and is currently in the beta stage of development.

"We are proud to say that we have had no vandalism either before or after the short period in which we tested out a self-registration system," Sanger said.

But at this point, Wikipedia dominates the online encyclopedia landscape. As it sinks deeper into professional disregard, more and more students will have to look elsewhere for their reference information.

Even so, Wikipedia's collegiate woes are not unique to its online format.

"I ban citations from any encyclopedia," Day-Lindsey explained, "because, especially at the college level, writers should be more discriminating researchers. If the students use Wikipedia or any encyclopedia, their research will appear generalized, causing their work to look mediocre at best."

Eastern's students are not without alternatives, should Wikipedia prove unreliable. Aside from textbooks, students have access to an entire library of on-paper information, coupled with a broad college database and a diverse faculty to bombard with questions.

"If the students use the excellent databases available to them through the EKU Library," Day-Lindsey said, "their work will almost always contain more specific, professional information."

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