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

Ken Friedman ken.friedman at bi.no
Sun Dec 4 13:50:13 PST 2005

Quick response to comments and questions

1) Ulf-Dietrich Reips asks, "How many citations of Wikipedia entries 
have your students really handed in to you that were a) not backed up 
by another source, and, b) found to be inaccurate?"

I did not keep count. I have noticed a significant increase in 
Wikipedia use over the past year, and I notice that students who DO 
use Wikipedia often use it as a single source. The inaccuracies I 
observe tend to be a difference between these students and those who 
draw on a wide range of sources. This is a simple way to push them in 
another direction.

My focus is on using multiple sources regardless of how good any one 
source may be. Given the use of Wikipedia as a proxy for research, my 
simple counterbalance is a proxy measure for those who do not search 
more widely in the first place.

2) Judd Antin writes, "For my own part, I often find that Wikipedia 
is a valuable place to start exploration, especially in areas that I 
know little about. Wikipedia articles often provide me with the 
background and context I need to begin exploration. This, IMHO, is 
the type of use we should promote."

Without disagreeing with or contesting Judd's other points, I want to 
say that Judd and I agree here. I don't tell students not to use 
Wikipedia at all. It is a good starting point for background 
information and leads.

What I tell students them is that I no longer accept Wikipedia as a 
source. As Judd writes, Wikipedia macro-level principle works, but 
the micro-level is too often flawed. While tools like the History 
Flow are interesting for those who want to research an article, I'd 
rather have students check multiple sources than myself have to check 
each article -- and its provenance -- when I see a Wikipedia 
reference. I do not wish to be a fact checker for student research 

3) Peter Steinberger writes, "To be consequent you have to ban all 
other Internet sources too. And all the magazines that are peer 
reviewed too, because lately they made some major mistakes too."

I don't see it this way. There are many good on-line sources, and I 
work with students teaching them how to explore, evaluate, and use 
multiple sources comparatively, including on-line sources. The issue 
here is the likelihood of major mistakes, and especially the 
unchecked occurrence of malicious hoaxes and fraud. You may defraud a 
scholarly journal, but you must do so by faking your evidence in a 
sophisticated way and getting it past the reviewers. All it takes to 
defraud Wikipedia and set fake facts loose is to log on and write -- 
or rewrite -- an entry.

For the moment, I argue that prohibiting Wikipedia as a source will 
enhance the debate by increasing the pressure on Wikipedia to find a 
better correction mechanism.

4) Jill Walker writes, "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."

Thanks for this note. Again, I agree, and I find myself in agreement 
with the other issues she raises as well. One note: this is not a 
school policy. It is my own policy. I have proposed this at the 
department level, though, and I plan to take it up the line.

5) Ulf-Dietrich Reips correctly notes that I misspelled John 
Seigenthaler's name. Alas, I did so twice. And I just did it again 
before correcting myself. But my note was not the "source" on 
Seigenthaler, and the sources I gave had it right. Rather, this was 
an example.

My note was a source of information on a situation and my action in 
response to the situation.


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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