[Air-l] Wikipedia warning -- Wikipedia is not a reliableinformation source

Rowin Young rowin.young at strath.ac.uk
Mon Dec 5 12:46:15 PST 2005

 I assumed that older versions of articles could often be found on the wayback machine (http://www.archive.org/)?  I'm prepared to be proved wrong :-)  I think the main reason I use it is because I love the name 'wayback machine'...
I've found this a really interesting discussion.  I taught until about a year ago, in Scottish and English literature and linguistics, and at both 'traditional' universities and via distance learning - had to give up because my 'main' job requires too much travel for me to be able to commit to teaching at regular hours.  I was always quite pleased when I saw a student struggling with - for example - a stylistic feature, and providing a definition referenced to wikipedia on which they based their answer: to me it showed that they were at least attempting to provide a basis for their interpretation, and is exactly what we tell them to do in exams: 'If you're not sure what the question's asking, provide your interpretation of it as the starting point for your answer'.  Yes, it would have been better if they'd been able to reference the dictionary of literary terms I referred them to, but it's not their fault that the library wouldn't stock it in that fiscal period, or that funding cuts meant that opening hours were cut so that the times when it was open was when the student was working to make up for their lack of funding...  but that's a whole different can of worms :-)
But I can think of at least two reasons why wikipedia was acceptable in the context of the courses I taught.  Firstly, the students were mostly using it for basic facts such as the definition of alliteration or (for students who took an historicist approach to literature) details about the life of an author or the cultural context in which s/he was working.  I do think that wikipedia is sound on the fundamental facts of such topics, and like other people who have contributed to this thread I use it myself for learning the basic points of an issue before I go and follow up points of interest in more detail elsewhere.  Secondly, because the nature of that subject is so focused on individual interpretation and the production of original analysis (and because the course teams were increasingly canny about minimising opportunities for plagiarism), there isn't any room for a student gaining many marks by simply regurgitating information from another source.  In response to the original poster, whose field is, I appreciate, very different to mine: if one of my students handed in an essay with only references to the Encyclopedia Britannica I would be deeply unimpressed.
I encouraged any of my students who attempted to use the internet to support their research.  All three universities, particularly the distance learning uni, offered superb access to academic resources via Athens, but students were hugely reluctant to use them: I don't know whether that's because they lacked understanding of how to access them - which I doubt, given their levels of IT literacy - or because they were aware that they lacked the academic background to be able to discriminate between good and less good sources: I'm sure that every academic on this list will have seen material published with glowing peer reviews and through the best academic resources with which they have violently disagreed!  I did encourage my students to restrict their searches in google to site:ac.uk, which at least imposes a vague attempt at quality control over what they accessed.  If anyone has any statistics for the use of google scholar, particularly within the uk, i'd be really interested in hearing about it.
Apologies for the overlong and banal post; it's my annual contribution so please feel seasonably towards me and don't flame me too much :-)
Dr Rowin Young
eLearning Research Fellow
University of Strathclyde


From: air-l-bounces at listserv.aoir.org on behalf of Jeremy Hunsinger
Sent: Mon 05/12/2005 19:16
To: air-l at listserv.aoir.org
Subject: Re: [Air-l] Wikipedia warning -- Wikipedia is not a reliableinformation source

actually this is fairly easy to solve and is solved by all the 
current citing practices of online materials.  when one cites online 
materials, one is always supposed to give date and if appropriate 
time of access in the citation.  on wikipedia, you can then go to the 
history and find that particular version of the article, or if it has 
been moved to archive, you could request it.
On Dec 5, 2005, at 1:59 PM, Tom Erickson wrote:

> This has been a very interesting discussion. Nobody has mentioned
> what seems to me to be the biggest problem in using Wikipedia as a
> source: the fact that its articles are not stable. Since, obviously,
> articles can and do change over time, simply citing an article would
> seem insufficient, as the content may change.
> It is interesting that the Wikipedia's design does not make it easy
> to do a citation that will continue to point at the version actually
> used. If one clicks on the history tab (for "past versions of this
> page"), one sees the history list and can copy those URLs. And in
> fact, contrary to what the flyout text for the history tab suggests,
> the history page also contains a URL for the current page, so in fact
> one could cite the specific instance of the article with something
> that would presumably act like a permalink. It seems to me that, for
> courses where Wikipedia citations are permitted, that this might be a
> good discipline to follow, as it foregrounds the issue of the
> stability or lack thereof of knowledge.
> --Tom
> --
> ------------------------------------------
> Tom Erickson
> IBM T.J. Watson Research Center
> Email: snowfall at acm.org (preferred); snowfall at us.ibm.com(IBM 
> confidential)
> http://www.visi.com/~snowfall/
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Jeremy Hunsinger
Center for Digital Discourse and Culture
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