Wikipedia banned from UCSC class
By ROGER SIDEMAN/MediaNews Group
Article Launched: 06/17/2007 08:17:11 AM PDT
SANTA CRUZ - UC Santa Cruz professor Dan Wirls adopted a policy banning students in his American government class from citing Wikipedia in research papers.
It's not that the collaborative online encyclopedia is bad or wrong - though inaccurate information is always a risk, says Wirls and other UCSC faculty who are noticing a growing number of students using Wikipedia. The main gripe from Wirls, chairman of the politics department, is that students "are entering college with almost no research skills beyond their rudimentary use of the Internet.
"They do not know how to use a library," he said.
For students who often start their research with Google, a Wikipedia entry will be the first item to pop up on just about any search of a concept, event or major figure.
And Wirls worries about students looking no further, explaining that reliance on the site has become, for some, a lazy man's substitute for more rigorous forms of research and investigation.
"You have to understand that we're dealing with a few students who will take the easiest way out," he said. "I've had students quoting Marx from the online entry instead of the course text."
Wirls' frustrations are by no means unique. Faculty across a wide range of departments at UCSC, and across the country, have either banned Wikipedia in citations, or at least warn students not to use the site as a primary source. Most say they don't object to its easily accessible online nature, but rather its freewheeling nature, which allows articles to be edited by nearly anyone with access to the Web.
In February, the history department at Middlebury College in Vermont banned the use of Wikipedia in citations, the first department at any college to do so. And many professors from around the country have posted caveats about its use atop their course syllabi.
Without the warnings, papers can start to look very similar.
In UCSC professor Noriko Aso's class on Japanese popular culture, the Web site seems, at times, to have become more influential in research papers than the assigned books or other course materials.
Since the point of going to college is to engage with the readings, Aso said, the number of papers with generic answers pulled straight off the Web site "is counterproductive, if not problematic."
Wikipedia officials agree, in part, and don't consider the bans to be all that negative.
"Wikipedia is the ideal place to start your research and get a global picture of a topic. However, it is not an authoritative source," said Sandra Ordonez, a Wikipedia spokeswoman. "We recommend that students check the facts they find in Wikipedia against other sources. It's usually not advisable, particularly at the university level, to cite an encyclopedia."
Because of the nature of Wikipedia, vandalism and unintentional errors can be added to articles, she said.
Since taking some heat for publishing inaccurate information, the online encyclopedia has tightened its rules, requiring users to register before they can create an article and limiting who can modify certain entries to a select group of experts.
"I think students are being blamed for laziness when the course readings or the lectures may just be hard to understand," said Sefira Fialkoff, a sophomore majoring in economics.
Although some UCSC professors have barred Wikipedia in citations, they have not banned it altogether, saying a total ban would be impractical. The site is simply too handy to expect students never to consult it, they say.
Since students today face an ocean of information, much of it poor quality, UCSC politics professor Ronnie Lipschutz said a better approach would be to teach students to "triangulate" a source like Wikipedia with other sources to determine whether a given entry can be trusted.
Another professor, Quentin Williams of the earth sciences department, agreed.
"I just tell students to use it with a very critical eye," he said, "and not to confuse it with primary sources where an author's name, credibility and, possibly, paycheck are up front and on the line."