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

Alex Halavais halavais at gmail.com
Sun Dec 4 21:22:57 PST 2005

There are really at least a couple of issues here, and I have a
feeling that they are being conflated:

1. Is Wikipedia an accurate source of information?

This is one of those silly questions like "is filesharing a good
thing"? There is no binary reply. It is more accurate than some
sources and less accurate than other sources. I've done some
preliminary work on this, and one possible answer is "it's good enough
to make finding inconsistencies very difficult." I would be very
interested in inaccuracies people have found that are systemic rather
than anecdotal. There are great anecdotal stories of inaccuracies in
all kinds of scholarly work.

Now the difficulty comes in measuring both the coverage and the
accuracy of Wikipedia, two things that I believe are closely related.
A graduate student and I are working on one way to measure this.

2. Is Wikipedia a good source for citation in an academic paper?

I think it is fair to say that the answer to this is "no." But then, I
would have never though to use a citation to *any* encyclopedia past
the fifth grade or so. While expectations for citation vary from field
to field and from culture to culture, we tend to think of
encyclopediae as common books of knowledge, and useful tools for
discovering both facts and sources of analyses. While particular
articles might stand as exceptions because of their authors (I'm
thinking of things like Husserl's article on phenomenology for the
1927 Encyclopedia Britannica), generally encyclopediae shouldn't be
used as citable sources.

But this seems far less an issue of the rampant incursion of a new
form of knowledge assembly, and more a question of educating critical
writers to the culture of secondary research and citation. I can't
imagine a similar department-wide ban on citing *anything*. Indeed, it
seems to me that when students do this, the faculty as a whole shares
some of the blame for not teaching them what they *should* be citing.

I am sure that most of you experienced (and perhaps still experience)
similar deficits in student citation early in the days of the web,
when students uncritically accepted what they found on websites. I
think that they are probably exercising more judgment when (if!) they
look at Wikipedia and its structure and decide that it is citable.

It seems a more sensible way of treating the issue is not a ban on
Wikipedia citation, or the creation of an Academic Index of Unworthy
Websites--which will grow quite long, quite quickly--but rather
educating our students to be savvy enough to critically consider the
media they consume, and cognizant of the cultural expectations of
academic citation.

The better rule, if a rule is to be handed down by the faculty, might
be "cite like we do."


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