Wikipedia Founder Discourages Academic Use of His Creation

Mr. Wales said that he gets about 10 e-mail messages a week from students who complain that Wikipedia has gotten them into academic hot water.

“They say, “Please help me. I got an F on my paper because I cited Wikipedia'” and the information turned out to be wrong, he says. But he said he has no sympathy for their plight, noting that he thinks to himself: “For God sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia.”

Mr. Wales said that leaders of Wikipedia have considered putting together a fact sheet that professors could give out to students explaining what Wikipedia is and that it is not always a definitive source. “It is pretty good, but you have to be careful with it,” he said. “It’s good enough knowledge, depending on what your purpose is.” —Wikipedia Founder Discourages Academic Use of His Creation (Chronicle)

My chief problem with Wikipedia is not that it’s online, or even that it’s authored by volunteers. It’s that an encyclopedia is supposed to present a very broad overview, without arguing a particular point of view. That means it records the knowledge that is accepted and orthodox. While it might point out internal disagreements among experts, an encyclopedia article is not the place to find striking new opinions or alternate ways of thinking that challenge the reader’s perceptions.

Critical thinking at the college level involves moving beyond chewing up a bunch of spoon-fed facts and spitting it back on demand. When students deliver oral presentations with Wikipedia printouts in their hands, I want to beat my head against the wall. For crying out loud, if I wanted the rest of the class to know what Wikipedia has to say about something, I’d just assign the article. When I ask a student to deliver an oral presentation, I’m looking for an honest-to-goodness opinion — something that a reasonable person might disagree with, so that we can have a discussion that leads us to delve more deeply into our assigned reading.

Of course, “don’t cite the encyclopedia” may be aggressively misinterpreted as “use it without cititng it,” but I think if we point out that the purpose of an academic essay is to present a particular author’s point of view, and the purpose of an encyclopedia is to present a very broad, opinion-free overview, they’ll see that it’s hard to argue with an encyclopedia, and it’s harder to argue with Wikipedia, since anyone who doesn’t like it is free to change it, and the text will keep changing until it finds a way to please the most people. An article that expresses an opinion that challenged or offended those who see the world differently would immediately get sliced and diced into a very different thing if it were submitted to Wikipedia.

I don’t mind their linking to a Wikipedia article as part of a routine blog entry (I do the same thing myself). I don’t mind their backing up a point in a classroom discussion by referring to a Wikipedia biography of an author or overview of an historical time period. But the encyclopedia — any encyclopedia — should be a first stop, not the last stop, and certainly never the only stop. (See also SHU student Karissa Kilgore’s latest essay about Wikipedia.)

My son’s piano teacher sometimes assigns research papers for homework. I’ve seen high school kids come in with Wikipedia printouts. When it’s their turn to present, they just read from the page (often losing their place and stumbling over words). While my son, at age eight, isn’t quite ready to write a research paper on his own, my wife will check out three or four books on the subject, have him read the kid-friendly books aloud to her, and she will read passages from the adult books to him. Then she will ask him what facts he remembers, and they’ll make a list. Again, since he’s just eight he’s not ready to move from facts to composition — not yet. But she will dictate sentences that he will write down, and then he will practice the speech numerous times.

In that way, he’s delivered speeches on Sinichi Suzuki (founder of the Suzuki School of Music) and on Edward Alger (who wrote the piece that American academics know as Pomp and Circumstance, or informally as the graduation march). I can’t honestly say he enjoys being walked through all these steps, but he loves delivering the speeches.