Still skeptical about Wikipedia

I am one of those professors who warns university students not to rely on Wikipedia. After reading about the background and potential of the online encyclopedia, my warning stands, but now it is informed by more than just a gut feeling.

Like other professors, my reaction to Wikipedia has been somewhat knee-jerk. It is not an academic source, after all. Entries in Wikipedia certainly do not follow the accepted structures of scholarly articles — nor are they meant to. In many cases, entries are not prepared by academics, by professionals who have spent years studying and researching their topics, although it should not be assumed that those who submit entries are without expertise and passion. Wikipedia frowns on original research as the basis for entries. However, Wikipedia counts among its contributors and editors quite a number of scholars. And, as in the academic realm, Wikipedia entries are vetted in a continuous dialog among contributors and editors.

Peering behind an entry on digital humanities was instructional. Like my students, I have tended to look at Wikipedia articles only on their face and have not considered the history that underlays them. The digital humanities entry, for example, began a decade ago! The history of the contributions and edits reveals the attention that those who care for and about the article have paid to both substance and form, fixing errors of fact as well as punctuation and grammar.

I frequently have told my students that Wikipedia should be considered a good finding aid. It enables the user to quickly retrieve basic information about a topic and points to further resources that can be explored.

In the future, I will be sure to provide my students a basic tutorial to using Wikipedia, asking them to evaluate the information in the article based on what they know, thus participating in the crowd-sourced nature of the encyclopedia. I will point them to the “View history” link above the article, so that they can get a sense for the kind of work (or lack thereof) that has gone into creation of the page. Further, I would strongly suggest that they click on the usernames of the main contributors and editors, so that they can review their biographies to develop a sense of the expertise (or lack thereof) of the article’s authors.

Also important is to click through to the various sources listed on the page, to verify, first, if the links work and, second, if the contributors and editors’ summaries of those resources are accurate.

My skepticism about Wikipedia remains, chiefly because I’m afraid students often use it as the only source in their research. However, by educating ourselves about how it is created and by whom, we can become more critical consumers of its information.