Wikipedia runs afoul of some college history departments
SEAN P. FLYNN, Staff Writer
Published April 5, 2007
Wikipedia is being banned by a handful of college history departments across the country and, in Spartanburg, by at least one college student.
Katie Moore, a sophomore history major at Converse College, said she refuses to use the online encyclopedia, no matter how temptingly easy it is to lean on for gathering information.
"I don't think that history is something that should be edited by the mass public," Moore said. "I think that requires more of a specialist. I'm a history major, and I see how many people get facts wrong…. This just seems too prone for error."
In the last few years, the peer-edited online encyclopedia, which allows the general public to create, revise and edit entries on any topic, has become one of the most visited Web sites in the Internet world. The English-language Wikipedia site currently has more than 1.7 million different pages on almost any topic imaginable. It is the 10th-most-viewed Web site in the world, according to alexa.com, a site that ranks Internet traffic.
In the world of scholarship, though, Wikipedia has also become one of the most hotly debated topics of the day, as students increasingly rely on the site as a research tool and, on occasion, as a source to be cited in research papers.
Recently, the history department at Middlebury College in Vermont prohibited students from citing Wikipedia in papers, and a few other schools followed. At local colleges, while no school has announced an official ban, some individual professors are taking the lead and curtailing students' usage of Wikipedia.
At Converse - where Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday night at Twichell Auditorium-history professor Melissa Walker has strictly curtailed the usage of Wikipedia for research papers.
She said it is impossible to fully ban its use as a primary resource, but she has stressed to students that the site is not allowed as a cited source for a paper.
"I have not found inaccurate information (in any papers), but I have often found superficial information," Walker said. "Sometimes I'll get a very simplistic answer on a very complex historical event… and then I find out it is citing a Wikipedia page."
Wales said in a telephone interview that he has no qualms with stands like the one Walker has made.
"That's exactly what we recommend," Wales said. "Students shouldn't be citing Encyclopedia Britannica either."
Moore said she has a few other friends who are against the use of Wikipedia, and that probably half of students at Converse have a view similar to hers.
Nicole Dumouchel, a freshman at Converse who double-majors in elementary education and Spanish, is a fan of the site. She has used with success a variation of it focusing on education, but said she never uses it as a primary source.
"Maybe in middle school or high school I used it, but that was before I found out that everyone could contribute," Dumouchel said. "So I don't use it for papers. But it's great resource to find out things like dates or song lyrics."
In many ways, Wikipedia is the byproduct of the ever-changing world of research, where the Internet has streamlined access to information, and computer databases and Google have replaced card catalogs and paper archives.
Margaret Green, the dean of the learning resources center at Spartanburg Community College, said the rise of Wikipedia is in part the inevitable advancement of the Internet. All of the inherent risks of the Internet - a network of computers sharing information, often unedited - are incorporated into this site. Green encourages students at SCC to carefully evaluate all online sources before citing them.
"I think (Wikipedia) is one of the most interesting innovations in this later Web development, as the Internet has matured," Green said. "This is a large people coming together to share their expertise, and they've made this wonderful encyclopedia. On the other side, because it's wide open, anybody can put anything on there, and there have been some abuses."
Various studies have estimated that the rate of errors in Wikipedia is not much worse than traditional encyclopedias. But in many cases the errors are much more absurd and noticeable; for example, last month Wikipedia falsely reported the death of the comedian Sinbad.
Still, almost no one can deny the usefulness of Wikipedia. Walker admitted that the external links displayed at the bottom of many pages provide an invaluable tool for student researchers.
Margo Wilson, the development coordinator for the Spartanburg County library system and a former children's librarian, said Wikipedia is an irreplaceable tool for her work.
She noted that in the old days a search would begin with a slow scroll through the World Book Encyclopedia.
"I think Wikipedia is a great first place to look for a quick spelling," Wilson said. "I use it for things like a child doing a report about Tiananmen Square…. I can pull up (the Internet), go to Wikipedia and type it in and get a spelling."
Still, no matter how simple Wikipedia may be to use, Moore won't budge from her stand against using it.
"I can see where it's an asset for general information," Moore said. "But I would never use it for a paper. There are better sources out there."
Staff writer Monica Mercer contributed to this story.