Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sinbad Lives!; or, Who's Afraid of Wikipedia

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “Never, ever, use Wikipedia for a college essay.” Such advice is, no doubt, meant to be helpful, to remind students of the website's inherent flaws and to emphasize its lack of “scholarly” material. And, to be sure, these are valid complaints leveled at a site that allows users to add and delete encyclopedic content, resulting in changes that aren’t always “true” or intellectually responsible.

Nonetheless, we should question the notion that professors and researchers in the university (and beyond) have blocked Wikipedia from their own browsers. In fact, it’s possible that those same instructors who forbid students from citing Wikipedia in academic papers are themselves using the site. How, then, can we move beyond the often hypocritical prescriptions of instructors who live in fear of Wikipedia's influence?

The answer lies in an investigation of the ways that Wikipedia can be and is used by conscientious students, professors, and researchers alike. James Purdy, in “Wikipedia is Good for You!?” (despite the noncommittal punctuation of the title) sets out to describe the many ways that Wikipedia stands to make us better researchers no matter what our educational level. Purdy outlines three primary ways that Wikipedia can be used for good: as a source for ideas, as a link to other texts, and as a resource for generating additional search terms (209).

Further, the process of incorporating information into a Wikipedia entry, for Purdy, “parallels what you do for research-based writing assignments” with its emphasis on reviewing what others have posted before making a “new” post (214). Thus instructors could, according to Purdy, use the site to teach responsible research methods and to discuss the often complex and confusing academic research process.

“But wait,” says the white-haired professor in the tweed jacket. “Wikipedia is full of inaccuracies."

Purdy points out, though, that “misinformation isn’t limited to Wikipedia,” citing the work of Jim Giles who claims that Wikipedia is nearly as accurate as Britannica, a far more respected encyclopedia source (207). The point is not that Wikipedia should be used in the same manner as scholarly publications, it is rather to illustrate the chinks in the armor of the latter. Put differently, the academic attacks on Wikipedia might be distracting us from the fact that even universally accepted resources have flaws.

It is worth stressing that Wikipedia isn’t an acceptable source for citation in academic work. But, students and professionals should feel free to begin by browsing Wikipedia entries which can lead to more credible information and tangential entries that can expand their horizons. The result may in fact be better researched claims and more enlightened thought.

At the very least, we might follow Purdy’s overarching advice: if “you are going to use Wikipedia as a source for writing assignments regardless of cautions against it,…it is more helpful to address ways to use it effectively than to ignore it" (205).

James Purdy’s essay can be accessed through the following link:

Jim Giles’s essay can be found (with university access) through the following link:

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