Mikhail Lyubansky dreads seeing a research paper full of Wikipedia citations, but the clinical psychologist and lecturer at the University of Illinois nevertheless encourages students to use the web site’s entries as a supplement to class readings and lectures.
Eight years after Wikipedia’s launch, professors such as Lyubansky have come to accept the free online encyclopedia–which can be edited by any registered user with web access–as a legitimate research tool for students, especially after the site announced changes last month to its editing policies.
Entries written by new Wikipedia users now will be edited by regular contributors, and changes to the biographies of celebrities or controversial figures will be reviewed before they go live on the site, said Erik Moeller, deputy director of the Wikimedia Foundation, adding in a blog post that "false information can do the most serious harm to an individual."
The policy shift comes after years of criticism by many in academia who saw the anonymity of Wikipedia contributors as a drawback for serious research. Wikipedia officials showed their renewed commitment to accuracy Sept. 14, when the site warned Japanese video game company Tecmo to stop editing its Wikipedia page. A Wikipedia contributor with a Tecmo IP address was found to have removed unsavory information about the company’s legal fight with a former employee.
Educators still say students should view any free, web-based resource with a skeptical eye, but Wikipedia’s editing changes and its continued evolution as it strives to be an authoritative source of information have strengthened confidence among college instructors.
"I’m not necessarily someone who thinks all information should come from the top down," said Lyubansky, who added that a student’s grade would be docked for over-citing Wikipedia, just as it would if a research assignment in the 1990s only mentioned one encyclopedia. "But it’s a great place to start, because it’s a number of people deciding what is important about a particular person or topic or thing."
Douglas Giles, a philosophy professor at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill., said educators’ opposition to Wikipedia is often rooted in a belief that students should look to peer-reviewed journals and print articles for sources of legitimate research.
"Professors who forbid Wikipedia are, in my opinion, being silly," Giles said. "The prejudice some professors have against Wikipedia … stems more from an ivory-tower elitism than any actual knowledge of the content of Wikipedia. One can easily find points of contention in any research tool."
Accepting an online arena of contributors, Giles said, might be difficult for professors steeped in college tradition.
"Some of these anti-Wikipedia professors will not be satisfied with any policies Wikipedia develops, because they find the open-source paradigm of Wikipedia hard to accept," he said.
Launched in 2001, Wikipedia now draws about 65 million visitors every month. About 75,000 contributors write and edit Wikipedia’s more than 13 million articles in 26 languages, including 3 million written in English. Wikipedia’s software, officials say, allows for quick correction of editing mistakes, and contributors who consistently violate the web site’s editing policies can be temporarily or permanently blocked from posting material by one of Wikipedia’s 1,685 administrators.
Wikipedia’s volunteer creators have made the site a source of information on everything from obscure comic books to modern politics to international sports–a variety of topics that has drawn massive donations to San Francisco-based Wikimedia, the nonprofit organization that runs the site.
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation gave the organization a $500,000 grant in August to expand the site’s educational content. And last year, the site received its largest contribution: $3 million from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Although many in higher education have yet to embrace the free online encyclopedia, a respected source–the journal Nature–said in a December 2006 article that Wikipedia is about as accurate in its scientific articles as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Articles from both sources were compared side by side, and researchers found four "serious" errors from both. The mistakes consisted mostly of misinterpretations of key scientific concepts, according to the Nature article.
Efforts to make Wikipedia more authoritative continue. Besides the recent policy changes, an experimental and optional new feature called "WikiTrust" reportedly will color-code every word of the encyclopedia this fall, based on the reliability of its author and the length of time it has stayed on the page.
Created by researchers from the Wiki Lab at the University of California, WikiTrust assigns a color code to newly edited text using an algorithm that calculates authors’ reputations from the lifespans of their past contributions. It’s based on the assumption that the longer information persists on the page, the more accurate it’s likely to be. Text from questionable sources starts out with a bright orange background, while text from trusted authors gets a lighter shade. As more people view and edit the new text, it gradually gains more "trust" and turns from orange to white.
Forbidding Wikipedia as a research citation is usually left up to individual professors, but college students say the site can be used to reinforce lecture hall lessons that leave questions during quiz and test preparation.
"I would never use it as my sole source for study materials, but it is an important part of my overall study efforts," said Kelly Cannon Hess, a senior history major at Excelsior College, an online school based in Albany, N.Y. "It’s especially good for filling in those annoying information gaps a traditional book can sometimes leave."
Wikipedia entries proved valuable for Cannon Hess during an introductory course in historiography, the study of how history is recorded and written. Cannon Hess said her textbooks "danced around" some basic topics, and she turned to the internet for a better grasp of her readings. Wikipedia entries explaining deconstruction and postmodernism, she said, provided much-needed supplements.
"Not only did I find Wikipedia’s articles more clearly written, but they contained basic information that my textbooks left out," Cannon Hess said.
Conal Byrne, editor-in-chief of HowStuffWorks.com, a site launched in 1998 that posts bylined articles explaining everything from health care reform to how steam technology works, said Wikipedia can play a role in a college student’s education, but contributors’ anonymity should deter students from using the site for academic research.
"It’s only contributing to the conversation if I lay bare who I am, where I did my research, what my point of view is and what my biases are," Byrne said, adding that HowStuffWorks.com has more than 40,000 searchable articles. "That’s a critical part of it … and that part is a little bit invisible [in Wikipedia entries]. There are a lot of blind spots when it comes to where that content is coming from."
Rick Bradshaw, associate professor of history at Centre College in Danville, Ky., said Wikipedia often serves as an outlet for academics to share their research with a large, international audience, even if their posts are "mini-accounts" of a body of research.
Wikipedia entries, Bradshaw added, are not limited by space, like printed encyclopedia pages, meaning students are more likely to find comprehensive writing on a Wikipedia page. The inclusion of maps, charts, and pictures in many Wikipedia entries, he said, provide illustration for researchers and students who might not grasp a concept in writing, but understand a subject better when it’s explained in images.
Bradshaw tells Centre College students not to include Wikipedia citations in class papers and to always check the Wikipedia information with other sources before incorporating the research into an assignment.
"I don’t recommend it as an authoritative source, but rather as a tool which is more useful than many other published and electronic tools," he said. "A tool is only as useful as the handler makes it."
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