The beauty of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia lies in the shortcut. With a single click, a browser can find an answer to just about any research question, however arcane. But is it the right answer?
Established in 2001, Wikipedia now boasts more than 5.3 million entries on its site. Unlike traditional encyclopedias, its contributors are all volunteer: anyone logging onto the Internet can create, add to or edit entries.
While many people champion Wikipedia’s vast store of information, its increasing popularity is raising some hackles in academia. Some professors say it’s rife with inaccuracies. It stifles the research process. In February, the history department of Middlebury College took the unique step of banning students from citing Wikipedia in papers or exams because the site is subject to mistakes and falsehoods that are sometimes deliberate.
At UVA, the egalitarian enterprise provokes assessments that run hot to cold. But if there’s no consensus, there are plenty of caveats.
Some faculty simply urge caution. Physics professor Robert Jones encourages his students to stick to the books. “I haven’t found one article that’s completely correct,” he says of Wikipedia. Some of the articles that he’s surveyed have been only half right. Even so, a number of his students in a recent class used it as a source for their term papers.
“If [students are] taking anything verbatim from Wikipedia, they’re almost definitely getting something wrong,” he says. “Nothing [on Wikipedia] should be used as a last source. The information should be used as a starting point.”
Jones himself uses Wikipedia occasionally to gather information about an unfamiliar topic and to find related subjects and sources, but, he says, “never as a final word.”
Other professors think students are savvy enough not to trust Wikipedia as gospel. “I think my students know its limits,” says philosophy professor Paul Humphreys.
Although he sometimes finds information on Wikipedia that’s incorrect, Humphreys notes that users who identify errors can correct them. Plus, he adds, Wikipedia is much more up-to-date than other resources and its huge database of information can’t be found elsewhere. Still, he has a caveat. “For factual material, it’s quite reliable,” Humphreys says. “For information that requires interpretation, I tell my students not to use it.”
David Golumbia, an English and media studies professor, is a Wikipedia contributor who encourages his students to use it as a resource. He even capitalizes on it as a teaching tool, showing students how the endlessly evolving Star Wars pages are a way to monitor the pulse of public interest. Wikipedia also is interesting for its accuracies and inaccuracies, and for the way people communicate via its pages.
“I worry a little about people who are too worried about Wikipedia,” Golumbia says. “I think they want to be gatekeepers of knowledge in an elitist way that’s contrary to how Jefferson wanted knowledge to develop.
“But I worry it’s becoming the single source of knowledge, which is contrary to Jefferson’s vision,” he adds.
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