Monday, 17 December 2007

Wikipedia in Academia?

Someone recently asked me what I thought, as a university lecturer, of students who quote from Wikipedia in their academic work. Surely I wouldn't allow it, they suggested, as Wikipedia can be edited by anyone at anytime, and is therefore bound to be inaccurate.

I surprised my questioner by saying that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with Wikipedia as a source. I also suggested that something that is subject to review by a very wide audience, and that can be edited quickly by many different hands, is probably more likely to be accurate than inaccurate. The problem with using Wikipedia in an academic assignment lies elsewhere.

The accepted practice on the course I teach, and I imagine that this is pretty much a standard practice, is that all sources must be properly referenced, and for online sources that means giving the access date as well as the URL. If a student were to cite a relevant Wikipedia entry, properly referenced, as part of their research, that would be fine by me. But it has to be dealt with in the same way as any other reference, which means that it has to be relevant to the argument, critically assessed, and properly referenced. And it definitely can't be the only reference that a student cites for a particular point.

In fact, a Wikipedia article is probably no better and no worse than an article form any other encyclopedia. The fact is that encyclopedia articles are rarely much more than a general introduction to a topic. As a tutor I expect students to research relevant books and articles from peer-reviewed journals, rather than quote from encyclopedia entries. We supply bibliographies, and university library services are there to support students in their research.

Some students find it difficult to adjust to the fact that academic work requires some effort on their part. It is not "instant". Tutors expect to see evidence of research, and analysis, and above all, of independent thought. Being able to share the latest "viral" video with twenty-sevn thousand "friends" in 0.176 seconds is not enough. So by all means read Wikipedia, and quote from it if you must. But don't expect me to accept it as true, or as relevant to your assignment's argument, just because it's something you found online.

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