Scholars to stop pretending they don't use Wikipedia; will work out best practices instead

Some students and profs London's Imperial College have decided to stop using scary anaecdotes to frighten students away from Wikipedia; instead, the scholars will acknowledge that kids use Wikipedia, that there's lots of good there, and will work out evidence-based best practices for learning with Wikipedia.
"Students know there is an inherent unreliablity, as it's open edited. We're not trying to hide that.

"But it's a place where you can orientate yourself when you start a topic.

"The quality has improved and the readability is often second to none," he says.

But Mr Patel says there is a real gap in knowledge about how this free resource is being used.

Rather than swapping anecdotes about the use of Wikipedia, he says his group wants to move to a more evidence-based discussion about the place of Wikipedia in universities.

Academics to 'embrace Wikipedia'


  1. I have, as a researcher and librarian (not my current position) found Wikipedia to be a great place to START research and to point the direction to good official sources. The work exists in finding original material and synthesizing a new topic or report. Why do the basics when it’s there for you. A great time saver and information source, but not a ‘research source’, that’s all.

    1. You’re bang on. I’m a librarian, and wikipedia is, to my mind what we used to call a “ready reference” resource. For narrowing down a search it’s a great place to start. If I had a name of an artist or a song or the name of a battle, I’d start with wikipedia to give me some parameters like when did the people live or what nations were involved. From there you can move to more in-depth resources, monographs, articles and even other web sources.

      Encyclopedias, whether online, open-source or not are not where one should be doing the bulk of one’s research after grade school anyway. If wikipedia gets you moving in the right direction, that can only be a good thing.

      One additional positive to wikipedia, the breadth of information on “ephemeral” cultural. I had a patron who was trying to hunt down a specific episode of “MASH” that his father had directed. Thanks to the comprehensive listing of episodes on wikipedia he was able to find it. He later went on to verify by getting the episode on DVD and checking out IMDB, but the wiki descriptions saved him oodles of time.

      1. By the way, thanks for the good word. It’s the first time I’ve said anything useful on Boing Boing.

      2. Even when used as a trampoline, Wikipedia has advantages compared to other encyclopedias — either I have been reading the wrong encyclopedias, or Wikipedia is the one I saw so far that provides references for each article. Inline citations make it even easier to know where to look at to know more, or to prove it.

        I think you forgot a really important feature of Wikipedia: it’s *editable*. Unlike a paper-based encyclopedia, or even some online ones, when you find a mistake, you can fix it. When you know a better way to explain something, you can add it.

        It’s a good first place to look at. Refusing wikipedia, telling students it’s evil because it’s editable, and suggesting the old-style encyclopedias instead is a big mistake. It’s called “trusting the experts”.

      3. I’m a librarian, too, and I use Wikipedia on my own for ready reference, so as long as I verify its claims.

        When I teach students information literacy skills, of course I stress the dangers of Wikipedia. It’d be nice to teach how to use it effectively — which is entirely possible. But I’ve only enough time to teach them how to use subscription databases and the catalog.

  2. Copying shoddy information from bad sources has been a hallmark of learning since the dawn of civilization. I say wise decision by the esteemed scholars of L.I.C.

  3. Man, I can’t get caught up in this topic. It’s just important to follow the source of information as far as you reasonably can. People (especially learning people) need to know what meta-information is, and what meta-meta-information is. No information is reliable and research methods allow people to at least attempt to find sources closer to the original. Wikipedia is near the bottom of the pyramid when it comes to removal from the source, which is the original event. You can’t get to the real source; everything is meta-information, even a film of the source itself. Wikipedia is a moderated source for locating source material.

    1. @ skeleton
      I wish you WOULD get caught up in this discussion. I am interested to hear more about meta-meta-information and the idea that “no information is reliable.” You’re just going to drop those tasty memes and then run out of here? Don’t leave us hangin’, man.

      @ Peter O

      I think you have a great approach there, encouraging your students to get in and see how Wikipedia works. Well done.

      It seems to me this whole conversation ends up in the twilight zone of the nature of knowledge. I would go out on a limb and say that MOST people build MOST of their knowledge from “academically unreliable” sources–family, friends, neighbors, mythologies, mass media, etc. No big surprise that students continue in this vane when they get to college. The folks at Imperial College are right to meet them half way and take a broader view of practical epistemology.

      Bright, curious people use Wikipedia. Telling those same bright, curious people that they can’t use it is a great way to breed resistance.

      (IMHO many students reject state-sanctioned critical-analysis techniques not because they don’t get it, but because they don’t want to meld their minds with the authoritarian teacher who is telling them their natural learning instincts are wrong. Even if the student IS wrong, teachers really ought to be a little more clever about how they break that little bit of news. Unless, of course, said teacher is getting off on the resistance in the same way the student is.)

      1. Wow, well said, double_tilly. You may be on to something about how students react to the Teacher-Man Laying Down The Law in terms of how to obtain knowledge.

        The best teachers I ever had were as transparent as possible, simply sharing their techniques and research methodologies as advantageous, then inviting the student to do what they want. I would hope that an instructor’s approach to wikipedia would be the same: tell the students to go ahead and start with Wikipedia, but then quickly follow up with a discussion (even a classroom game) about meta-information and source reliability. One great way to do this would be to set up a wiki (using wikia or anything) to have the students write their own wiki on some given topic. I would think that they will quickly learn the pitfalls of sources, moderator bullying, popularity != truth, and collaboration. These lessons would seem far more valuable to a student.

  4. As an educator, I am constantly having to battle two diametrically opposed, yet equally wrongheaded, attitudes about Wikipedia among my students (and, sadly, among some of my colleagues as well). On the one hand, there are those who use Wikipedia uncritically, taking everything they find there at face value, and even citing Wikipedia as if it were a proper source. (I’ve even had students plagiarize from Wikipedia; and I’m not talking about subtle plagiarism where you grab a few things here and there and mix them in with your own words – I’m talking about copying and pasting entire paragraphs with no changes whatsoever. I feel insulted that my students would think I wouldn’t catch that.) On the other hand, there are those (including many of my fellow professors) who treat Wikipedia as if it contained nothing but pure BS and was not to be trusted under any circumstances. Both of these views are misguided. Wikipedia is a great place to get lots of basic information about a wide variety of subjects quickly. If you don’t know much about a particular topic, Wikipedia is probably the best resource available for getting the fundamental information you’ll need to get yourself oriented. I always encourage my students to start their research there. But, of course, the research process should never end at Wikipedia. For all its virtues, Wikipedia simply lacks the depth or the reliability to be considered a proper source to be cited in a research paper.

    1. One place I see Wikipedia as lagging in terms of editorial focus is a tenancy to embrace trivia over substance, even in scientific topics. Single studies will get mentioned with the same weight as time-tested assertions. There’s a curious flatness to the facts presented. This becomes glaring when you look to the citations and see how one statement, say about the intelligence of crows, comes from the Smithsonian and another, reporting that crows have been seen using bait to fish or performing rudimentary music, comes from far less robust sources.

      The key to any good bibliographic instruction (oh yes! Library Science FTW!) is learning to parse sources presented to you. Being skeptical, double and triple checking your sources, verifying a chain of intellectual integrity, is all part of creating good work.

      The whole-hog/copy-paste cheaters are really sad, but what worries me more than the obvious ones, are the students who are willing to sell off their own intellectual rigor so cheaply, just to save a second look at the strength of their sources.

  5. Wikipedia is an awesome way to get orientated on a subject and to find useful places to get started on your own research. But it should be treated with a certain amount of healthy contempt and if you’re using it in an academic capacity after High School, you need a swift clip around the earhole.

    It’s like asking a guy who watches a lot of History Channel about history. You might learn some things but the real depth is mostly going to be how Hitler and Swords because that’s what people are mostly interested in.

  6. The larger issue should be how to instill a sense of common-sense and critical thinking to any academic endeavor… Heck, any life endeavor…

    I mean the discussion could be started simply by saying, “Okay, who hear has gotten those lottery SPAM e-mails… What did you think and feel? And why?”

  7. It’s about time. I mention Wikipedia and my kids act like I’ve been surfing porn because of what their teachers tell them. It’s akin to drug education, where everything from a martini to heroin is equally evil. I suppose that’s just easier than teaching proper usage.

    1. This is exactly how I feel, Miss Cellania. The reactionary anti-WP rhetoric always stinks of secret shame, like a Victorian decrying the horror of masturbation during the day and furtively wanking all night.

  8. Ain’t nothing wrong with using wikipedia as a dock for your journey to some godforsaken island of information.

    But the dock is just a dock. You can’t stand on the shore and claim to know all there is to know about the sea. The horizon isn’t the the end of the world, that shit’s a sphere yo!

  9. I encourage my students to contribute to Wikipedia. Everyone has some area of expertise, whether it’s their hometown or a breed of dog they own. Editing Wikipedia entries (and watching edits get edited) is a good way of learning first-hand about Wikipedia’s credibility and appropriate uses.

  10. From Matt Kirschenbaum’s excellent book Mechanisms:

    In several places this book references Wikipedia as a scholarly source of record, usually for some specific point of technical documentation. Information technology is among the most reliable content domains on Wikipedia, given the high interest of such topics among Wikipedia‘s readership and the consequent scrutiny they tend to attract. Moreover, the ability to examine page histories on Wikipedia allows a user to recover the editorial record of a particular entry, with every revision to the text date- and time-stamped and versioned. Attention to these editorial histories can help users exercise sound judgement as to whether or not the information before them at any given moment is controversial, and I have availed myself of that functionality when deciding whether or not to rely on Wikipedia.

  11. When I was in grade school, the equivalent would have been copying or paraphrasing from the World Book Encyclopedia (or EB), but at least those had some research behind them. Whether a Wikipedia article does also, or has much depth to it, is only part of the point; it’s the laziness from relying on it alone that’s the bigger problem.

    …says someone who really *hated* doing research papers in school, but has since spent weeks on the computer and in art libraries to identify an unsigned etching or work out if a drawing is fake.

  12. I agree it’s about time. I was a tertiary lecturer from 2001-2004, and even back then encouraged my students to /start/ with Wikipedia, or something like it.

    OTOH, I also warned them that they’d get slammed for /ending/ their research there :D

    felixjawesome: in a case of nominative determinism, that was indeed an awesome comment :D


  13. i remember being in school and them giving the scariest speech ever if we were caught using wikipedia.

    but you could just use it anyway and cite the sources from the wikipedia article and use those in your paper, instead of the wikipedia article itself.

  14. Someone who’s willing to plagiarize would probably think that basing a paper entirely on Wikipedia is remarkably honest.

    Still, I guess you can’t really change that. A bad paper will always be a bad paper.

  15. I agree with this – as a student, I often use Wikipedia when I am writing an essay to get a general idea of the subject and knock out a rough plan of my argument, then I research each point using academic texts and change the argument if necessary. It usually isn’t necessary, but if I can do so I will change the wiki article a little with a citation or two from the text I’m reading.

  16. Oh Boingboing. You’re so cute when you wildly overgeneralize. A couple of people in a school in London does not ‘Academics’ make.

    Here’s an axiom from me, one of the faceless Academics: The more technical your field, the less people know how it works, the less useful Wikipedia is.

    Many ‘academics’ (including myself) have tried to edit/create technically accurate pages on Wikipedia for our fields only to be edited out by people whose main pages are star trek-based, or are lists of anthropomorphic animals in cartoon series.

    The ugly fact is that knowledge is not democratic, and just because 15 people think the answer is A (i.e. the Wikipedia answer) does not alter the 2 experts from saying it is B. As long as Wikipedia has no method for sorting out amateurs from professionals, they’re never going to get much help from people like me. I spend enough time arguing with the people in my own field, via journal articles and conferences, to want to add in an argument with 3 idiots who think that a good control of Perl scripting gives them the right to be experts on proto-Algonquian verb systems or Montague semantics.

    1. 1. This article does not include the word “academic” or “academics;” that was the BBC’s headline

      2. Wikipedia’s policy on original, primary and secondary sources is completely unrelated to the account you’ve given in your comment. If you believe that this is how Wikipedia functions, that may be why you’re finding it so frustrating to edit it.

      This thread:

      is a good place to start.

      You may not like how Wikipedia settles disputes or ascribes authority, but you should know how this actually works before you criticize it.

      One thing Wikipedia prohibits is ad hominem, for example, your remark about “anthropomorphic animals.” Claude Shannon was a passionate unicyclist, this doesn’t lessen his authority on the subject of information theory.

      Wikipedia does, in fact, have a detailed and highly naunced way of sorting out amateurs and professionals — when adjudicating the validity of sources. Moreover, the voices of expert editors are given authority when the discussion of the validity of sources arises.

      But Wikipedia isn’t the place you go to publish your research. Wikipedia could not work if individual users could settle disputes by mere appeals to authority. Instead, Wikipedia prefers to settle these disputes by reference to authoritative sources.

      So if you want to correct the entry on Algonquian verb systems, you need to cite an authoritative source. It could even be your own material, assuming that material was published in an authoritative place (such as a peer-reviewed journal). What you can’t do is change an entry and answer all disputes by saying, “I know more than you do, go pound sand.”

      Wikipedia strives to be a collection of well-organized facts from authoritative sources, not a compendium of original research. The fact that it fails to act as the latter is no indictment of it.

    2. Verafides,

      I fear you’re missing out on the true point and purpose of an advanced education: if you’re a researcher, you’re supposed to be seeking truth, and if you’re also a teacher, you’re supposed to be helping mankind understand that truth.

      Why not continue to make your case on wikipedia? You’ve got a direct conduit to thousands of readers out there, and you’ve got a forum in which you can very easily and very quickly update/refute/challenge/change information and data. Why not take your arguments right there, instead of some stuffy conference room at the Marriot Hotel? If you’re an “expert”, then prove it to us unwashed proles. Get in there and show your stuff! If you just sit around and argue dead language conjugations with other similar niche thinkers, you’re not doing much good, I’m afraid.

      Two last points:
      1. The stereotypes about wiki fanboiz with their star trek pages isn’t very helpful and not very accurate, and you probably know that.
      2. Even before I got to the end of your post, I was going to guess that your specialty is something to do with linguistics. The wiki pages on linguistics are full of wild conjecture, subjective he-said she-said, and not much proven research. I cannot figure out if that’s truly indicative of the field currently, or because solid academics like you are not pulling their weight on publishing to wikipedia. On the other end of the spectrum, the biology and geology articles all seem pretty solid. Perhaps it’s because those sciences are more adept to actual observation and experimentation?

    3. “knowledge is not democratic”

      i feel really sorry for your students, your “received knowers”, who risk being branded as argumentative idiots when they challenge your authoritative knowledge. the academy may not be democratic, but it is a community dedicated to the growth of knowledge. when an academic resorts to name-calling when challenged, i can only imagine that particular academic feels quite insecure about their supposed authority.

      i’m in grad school right now, and i’ve never heard anyone refer to anyone else as an idiot.
      that word just isn’t part of academic discourse.
      shame on you for such a blatant attempt to denigrate your critics

  17. I’m a grad student at Harvard, and here we have a saying: Start with Wikipedia, don’t end with it. In other words, use it to get a sense of the subject, then jump immediately to the citations and go read the source material.

  18. Not all academic institutions decry Wikipedia, I had my history professor tell the entire lecture hall not to bother memorizing any facts or dates that can be quickly found on Wikipedia.

  19. I’m an English Ph.D. candidate, and I teach the freshman and sophomore English classes at my university. That includes the research English class second semester.

    I always have the Wikipedia conversation with my students, and I do tell them they can’t use it — but not because it’s crowdsourced. I tell them that’s the great part of Wikipedia, and that it’s usually accurate. The reason it’s a bad idea to cite it is that it’s an encyclopedia, and all encyclopedias are too general to be good for citing. Just like Wikipedia, they’re great places to start out. And Wikipedia isn’t usually going to be like that set of encyclopedias I had when I was a kid (I’m 27, for this to make sense), which talked about the initiative to go to the Moon and how we were confident we’d manage it some day.

    I’m honest with my students — I use wikipedia too. But I don’t cite it in papers. Wikisource, on the other hand… I get lots of readings there so they don’t have to buy as many books.

  20. Twitter + Wikipedia = Multipedia

    Trending IAM – the age of the net identity.
    Have users’ own their work, collect these contributions to a page, rank them, build each page belonging to such and such a collective, and you’ve got yourself integrity of information and sources that puts an end to a plethora of others problems, particularly the impossible NPOV policy. Different views / traditions should not have to be so vigorously gentrified. It stifles creativity and is simply an illusion of consensus. Encyclopedias are museums of dead information. There’s no imperative to understand or remember anything. This is calamity of meaning for our age.

    By making users / people the focus, we will rekindle the importance of the source of the information, and of traditions and not taking information for granted. Facet search will allow to choose which collective (tradition) you want to view pages for. Because users own their contributions, they are encouraged to add. Association with a collective will give ranking bias for sections added to pages belonging to those collectives. When you search, you can choose which algorithm to use.

    You see the problem is we’re always trying to plug Internet solutions into the systems we already have. But Wikipedia has the potential to radically simplify how we share knowledge and undermine those systems outright. A contribution to wiki could be a primary source. Why shouldn’t it? The verifiability will be right in the system itself, because the identities are so integral to it. Think big.


    If nothing else here makes sense, then at least consider changing the wording of NPOV to Neutral Intention. Policy expressed as a function rather than a set value. ‘We are working toward this’, rather than, ‘We have a NPOV.’

  21. Verafides, another thing: even if someone is a Star Trek expert and not a linguistics expert*, they may still be skilled at maintaining a neutral POV, fixing dead links, cleaning vandalism, or any number of maintenance tasks that can result in someone being a prolific editor across a wide range of topics.

    Also, I’ve seen talk pages where 7 people out of 10 disagree with certain things within the article, but the minority wins the edit because they can back it up with actual sources. It is not a free-for-all democracy; there are specific rules to maintain accuracy and neutrality. I do hope you will try again to use your knowledge to create and clarify linguistics articles. Your first attempts may have been heavily edited due to being seen as original research, lacking sources, or being too narrow. You are quite right about Wikipedia not being terribly in-depth in technical fields – that’s a limitation of a general knowledge encyclopedia, but you could start your own linguistics wiki if interested.

    *Or they could be Marc Okrand.

  22. The whole wikipedia in academics freakout that’s gone on for the past 10 years is proof of just how completely dogmatic academia has become. Obviously you should asses content before citing it, that is fucking standard operating procedure! That academic types generally don’t understand this and categorically dismiss a source is an indictment of contemporary academic culture.
    I think anyone involved in the academic world who believes Wikipedia must never be used in an academic work is an incompetent hack and should be stripped of their degrees and sent back to undergrad to earn a BA in Liberal Arts. Learn some critical thinking skills!

  23. Wikipedia is great for all sorts of things: finding quick background info, looking at the bibliography for further readings, etc. Sometimes, I’d even support citing a fact from it… if your citation includes the version/date accessed (to accommodate future edits that might change the material you cited).

    However, I was a bit appalled when I found Donna Haraway using the Wikipedia entry for Wombat to cite the origin of the word “Wombat” in a footnote of “When Species Meet.” Why? (1) She doesn’t note the date the Wikipedia entry was accessed. (2) The cited “fact” lacks a citation in Wikipedia… and I’m pretty sure she used Wikipedia for her citation precisely because she couldn’t find another source stating this. (Nor could I find one with a Google search, though I imagine some book on the Eola language might offer confirmation of the claim.)

    Sorry I don’t have the specific page number to cite here, Haraway’s book isn’t nearby at the moment. In the meantime, I’ve added a [citation needed]to the Wombat page.

  24. Hi,

    I’m a college professor of philosophy (specializing in the history of philosophy) and I discourage students from using Wikipedia because there is a much better (and free!) online resource: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This latter effort does not use community editing; instead, it selects authors based on their authority on a topic and then it subjects the article to peer review by other experts.

    Take, for example, the wikipedia entry on Epictetus:

    Then take a look at the Stanford Encyclopedia entry written by an established scholar:

    Truth be told, I think skeletoncityrepeater has nailed it: one might start with wiki as a quick reference, but I would be disappointed if my students satisfied themselves with the lackluster entry on Epictetus in wikipedia as opposed to the Stanford Encyclopedia.

  25. I agree with what many people have said here: Wikipedia is a good place to start, but not to end your studying of a subject. But then, isn’t that the same for all encyclopedias? Wikipedia is better about some things than say, good old Encyclopedia Britannica on paper, and it also has some weaknesses. Long essays could be written to compare strong and weak sides, but basically, an encyclopedia is an encyclopedia. It’s good to get an overview of things, a quick start, but it isn’t where you get indepth education in a subject.

    I think verafides has a point. I do think there have been quite a few academics who have struggled to get their points through on Wikipedia, and it’s something Wikipedia needs to take seriously. Sometimes it’s probably because of a difference in writing style and language. Academic language may be the most correct, but it isn’t always suitable to explain topics to a wider audience. Sometimes academics (and others) only understand the way they themselves work, and don’t see that they may have to adjust a bit to the styles that work on Wikipedia (or other encyclopedias, for that matter).

    But it is also a fact that many of the enthusiasts that contribute regularly to Wikipedia are, well, nerds. Sometimes very scholared nerds, but not always, but quite often with very strong opinions on their favourite subject. Some of these people do tend to get a bit shortsighted at times, and fail to see the whole picture, and that other people may actually know more than they do. Getting into a struggle with such people can be extremely frustrating, and most people won’t bother again after that first time they tried.

    Star Trek and similar things on Wikipedia don’t bother me much. Most of us have have some interest in things that other people find silly and useless. I don’t see a problem with having much of that on Wikipedia (within reason, obviously), but wikipedia of course should get better at more important subjects. And it is, little by little. Hopefully with the help of academics, too.

    By the way, I won’t call Wikipedia democratic for the most part. There are some issues that get decided by voting, but most of the time there will be some people with louder voices than others. Not always the right people (with the right or best grasp of what’s correct or best), but hopefully it is most of the time.

    1. But then, isn’t that the same for all encyclopedias?

      I think it is the same for all books, papers, and printed sources. If you check just one, you are at the mercy of its author.

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