Give Wikipedia a Break!

As of last night, five of us have been helping a student with her research with no success. Actually, that’s not quite true. The information she needs is readily accessible. On Wikipedia. And that’s a source that her instructor will not allow.

Now in general, I am not a fan of using encyclopedias in research papers. Students need to be delving deeper into topics, not skimming the surface, which is what encyclopedias do well. Furthermore, I know that if instructors didn’t ban Wikipedia, some papers would include sources from nowhere else.

In the case of the student yesterday, the source as she needed it was only in Wikipedia.  Now, that, obviously, is not a reason to allow it as a source. However, by each statistic, there was a nice hyperlink to its source. The information was documented and was probably more reliable than anything else we could find. (And we found little else.)

But there’s a bigger issue here than five library staff members spending hours on a search that could have taken five minutes. Whether we like it or not, most students, once they graduate, are going to use basic search engines when they need answers to questions. They will be much better prepared to do this if they’ve had practice deciding when Wikipedia (or any web site) is appropriate rather than never using it in college because it’s banned.

As I was writing this, a colleague from the English department came in and curmudgeonly (his word) argued against my thesis here. He strongly feels the disadvantages outweigh the advantages in the classroom. However, his argument was not on the reliability of Wikipedia, but the tendency of students to rely upon it if it weren’t banned. And, to be fair, I’m not facing the daunting task of grading more than a hundred research papers each semester. That practicality might outweigh my philosophy.

Still, in general, it’s time to stop bad mouthing Wikipedia.

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