"I Don't Mind A Parasite. I Object To A Cut-Rate One."
Over the past several years, it has been suggested from time to time on this here blog site that various bloggers “get educated.” Well – here’s my contribution to the improvement of our collective knowledge. The topic for today is one of my all-time favorites: Wikipedia. To facilitate our learning experience, I have assembled a number of “guest speakers.” They include members and sources of academia from such prestigious institutions as Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Oxford University, London/New York; Yale College, New Haven, CT; and The Johns Hopkins University School of Education, Baltimore, MD. By way of their published views, these educators/sources of academia will enlighten us as to how they view Wikipedia, as well as suggest its appropriate use in today’s world.
First and foremost – before we begin our “formal education” on Wikipedia - we need to understand a few “facts”:
Fact Number 1: By all accounts, Wikipedia is not a “scholarly” or “academic” source. The Yale College Writing Center defines scholarly sources as: “…those that have been approved by a group with recognized expertise in the field under discussion. Books published by University Presses fall into this category, as do articles published in peer-reviewed journals—journals where the editors send pieces out to be read by experts in the field before deciding to publish them.”
Fact Number 2: Generally speaking, scholarly sources provide required reference and must be used in research and writing assignments for university or college studies, as well as in the production of writings which are to be used/published for purposes of business, educational, scientific, legal, or technical reference or peer review.
Fact Number 3: Much as some of us might hate to admit it, the comments of those who blog here will probably NEVER be used either in a university or college setting (except perhaps as an example of how NOT to do something), or as a basis for business, educational, scientific, legal, or technical reference or peer review.
So you may ask: When SHOULD Wikipedia be used, and what is its true value? According to the Harvard University Guide to Using Sources in an article titled “What’s Wrong With Wikipedia?”:
“There’s nothing more convenient than Wikipedia if you’re looking for some quick information, and when the stakes are low…..you may get what you need from Wikipedia. In fact, some instructors may advise their students to read entries for scientific concepts on Wikipedia as a way to begin understanding those concepts.”
When asked “What do you think of Wikipedia?”, Casper Grathwohl, Vice President and Publisher of Reference at Oxford University Press had some interesting comments. According to Grathwohl, who helped transform Oxford’s print dictionary and reference list into one of the leading online academic publishing programs in the world - and who previously worked for both Princeton University Press and Columbia University Press:
“I get this question a lot, and I think (W)ikipedia is great. And I’m a little disappointed by all the complaints about how unreliable it is as a source. Of course it’s unreliable—quick, cheap information has never been anything but! In my circles I feel like there’s this myth that before user-generated web content everyone slavishly referred to trusted reference authorities for their quick information. If only. What did you do if you needed a quick answer to something in the pre-(W)ikipedia dark ages? Nine out of ten times you’d call a friend or ask a colleague before pulling Britannica off your shelf. Was that more reliable? Absolutely not. But that’s OK, because you’d know not to cite one of your friends in the bibliography of your research paper. I think if we start thinking of (W)ikipedia as the equivalent of calling up one of your smart friends and getting a “good enough” answer (which is often all you’re looking for) then we’re on the road to responsibly understanding the awesome power of such user-generated resources.”
Further – in his article titled “Wikipedia Comes of Age,” dated January 7, 2011, and published online in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Grathwohl says:
“As Wikipedia has grown, it has become increasingly clear that it functions as a necessary layer in the Internet knowledge system, a layer that was not needed in the analog age.”
“Through user-generated efforts, Wikipedia is comprehensive, current, and far and away the most trustworthy Web resource of its kind. It is not the bottom layer of authority, nor the top, but in fact the highest layer without formal vetting. In this unique role, it therefore serves as an ideal bridge between the validated and unvalidated Web.”
Finally, in her article titled “A Place for Wikipedia or Putting Wikipedia in its Place,” published in the Winter 2012 edition of The Johns Hopkins University School of Education Journal - New Horizons for Learning section - Ms. Sarah Baker, Education Librarian and Assistant Professor at New Mexico State University says this:
“Many university instructors have a love-hate relationship with Wikipedia—they love to hate it. Faculty in the history department at Middlebury College made headlines when their policy to penalize students for citing Wikipedia and print encyclopedias in their papers and (sic) was made public. In spite of the fact that faculty don’t allow students to use Wikipedia for class assignments, it is consistently one of the first places students look for information. A recent University of Washington study found that 84% of students surveyed use Wikipedia for information gathering purposes while doing course-related research.”
“A colleague and I have been looking for ways to use Wikipedia to help students develop the skills they need to critique and use different levels of information. As academic librarians who have been assigned to teach independent sections of our university’s general education course on information literacy, we have a captive audience for teaching students how to select Wikipedia as a research tool and, just as importantly, how to responsibly use the information they find."
"Our rationale for using Wikipedia as the framework for this course on information literacy is that it serves as a natural entry point for online research skills by taking students from where they are and helping them branch out to other catalogs, databases, and websites.”
“There are plenty of articles and studies done that explain Wikipedia’s standards of inclusion and compare accuracy with print encyclopedias like Britannica, but is this really the point? Is this the problem? Should college students be able to cite encyclopedias in their research papers? Should information be dismissed solely because of where it is published? Instructors need to understand that they have to explain things like the uses and appropriateness of different types of information to their students instead of just requiring them to cite 3 scholarly articles and restricting online resources and reference books without clarification. Wikipedia needs to be put into context in the classroom, not banned or scorned or ignored. I’m not saying that every instructor has to use a Wikipedia article as an assignment in their classes or even that they teach their students how to use it. I am suggesting that teachers tell their students about the appropriateness of different research tools for their assignments. All I am asking is that instructors make a place for Wikipedia in the discussion instead of constantly trying to put it in its place.”
So – when it comes to Wikipedia – the REAL question is: When and where “to use or not to use” it. I contend that our beloved blogs on The Coastal Courier web site – despite our desires or delusions to the contrary – neither constitute writings that will ever be included in or subject to “business, educational, scientific, legal, or technical reference(s) or peer review”; nor are we conducting research or writing assignments for university or college studies. Consequently, the use of “scholarly” or “academic” sources here may enhance our level of snobbery, but they really are unnecessary in the context of the information we are relaying; where we are relaying it; the purpose of our blog comments; and our target audience.
In other words – as I’ve said many times before: Wikipedia does have a place as a reference tool. It has value – particularly as outlined above. But where is Wikipedia’s place? IMHO – this here blog site is as good a place as any.
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