[Air-l] Wikipedia warning -- Wikipedia is not a reliable information source

Jill Walker jill.walker at uib.no
Sun Dec 4 12:26:19 PST 2005

Thanks for raising this issue, Ken. I had heard about defamation and  
inaccuracy, but wasn't aware of those recent cases. It's really  
useful to know what other universities' policies are on this.

Our department has recently instated a similar prohibition against  
using the Wikipedia as a source in student papers. Our line has been  
that the Wikipedia is one of many useful places to start doing  
research on a topic, but that it is rarely valid as a final source  
for research. Many articles do provide good overviews and more  
importantly, they often link to primary sources which CAN be good,  
citable resources in student papers.

There are cases when it is appropriate to cite a Wikipedia article -  
for instance if writing a paper ABOUT the Wikipedia, or about a topic  
that is developing and where it is interesting to cite changing  
Wikipedia articles. In such cases students are told they need to  
include a discussion of why it's appropriate to use the Wikipedia.

Our prohibition has been partly due to the uneven quality of various  
subject areas coverage in the Wikipedia - some (particularly new and  
developing areas with a lot of online resources and activity) are  
wonderfully covered, with far better articles than The Britannica,  
for instance, but others (like electronic literature) are very  
partially and not always accurately presented. Another reason is  
simply that Wikipedia citations in student papers are usually so lazy  
- students tend to use them when they haven't bothered to either do a  
little more research to find primary sources or when they haven't  
bothered to write their own summaries of papers and books that are on  
the curriculum and they are supposed to have read. I don't think  
encyclopedias of any kind should be primary sources for most student  

I'll continue contributing to the Wikipedia, when I have time - I  
think it's wonderful, but usually not an authoritative source for  
research papers or student papers.

And having said all this: despite the Wikipedia prohibition being  
repeated in lectures, we continue to get citations in paper after  
paper... Most students, it appears, would far rather cut and paste  
from the Wikipedia than do their own work.


Dr Jill Walker, Dept of Humanistic Informatics, University of Bergen,  

> Dear Colleagues,
> This letter is a suggestion that you address the problem of bad
> information in student papers from an increasingly poor source:
> Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not getting better. It is getting worse. One
> reason for this is the apparent case that the status of Wikipedia as
> a much-used reference resource makes it the target of opportunity for
> hoax efforts that would never enter an edited reference text.
> There are now enough serious incidents of false and defamatory
> information in Wikipedia biographies to warrant prohibiting this as a
> reference source in universities and university-level professional
> schools. The same is true of inaccurate or false assertions in many
> articles.
> The problem with Wikipedia is not that the Wiki system MAY develop a
> solid and reliable reference work, but that in the current form, it
> DOES NOT. It is as easy to change an article for the worse as for the
> better.
> Nearly any university student today has access to a decent library
> and good on-line reference texts. In addition, anyone willing to
> search a bit will also fine outstanding SIGNED references sources by
> major scholars in many fields, as well as useful albeit older
> versions of respected references source no longer covered by
> copyright.
> The current scandal concerning a false and defamatory biography of
> Robert Kennedy aide and friend John Siegenthaler (see below) and
> similar recent cases lead me to conclude that Wikipedia has no way to
> prevent problems like this from happening. This is made worse by the
> fact that Wikipedia is an automatic flow-through resource for other
> on-line sources.
> Wikipedia is unacceptable as a research tool.
> I have informed my students that they may no longer use Wikipedia as
> a reference or source on papers in my courses. I urge you to consider
> a similar statement. While Wikipedia may be a useful first step in
> seeking information, I no longer accept it as a credible source.
> Therefore, I advise students to look further when a project requires
> a reliable source.
> Use of Wikipedia by students and researchers is an important
> validation mechanism for Wikipedia.
> If enough of us prohibit Wikipedia as a reference source in our
> courses, programs, and schools, the message will eventually get
> through.
> When it does, Wikipedia will find an appropriate way to monitor
> contributions. If they do not, the reputation of Wikipedia will sink
> to that of another crank web site.
> Yours,
> Ken Friedman
> The Siegenthaler case in the New York Times and USA Today via Yahoo:
> http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/04/weekinreview/04seelye.html
> http://news.yahoo.com/s/usatoday/20051130/cm_usatoday/ 
> afalsewikipediabiography
> -- 
> Ken Friedman
> Professor of Leadership and Strategic Design
> Institute for Communication, Culture, and Language
> Norwegian School of Management
> Design Research Center
> Denmark's Design School
> email: ken.friedman at bi.no
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