Wikipedia and Citation

You know, it’s funny in a way, I was born just early enough to have needed libraries and encyclopedias to do meaningful research, and just late enough that I never had to deal with the eventual use of the internet to obtaining information. That is to say, when I was writing papers in college I was still citing actual physical books. By the time I found out that rules against citing wikipedia existed it seemed rather absurd to me.

Wikipedia had long since become a staple of internet knowledge. Yeah, back in the earlier days you would occasionally have to deal with the odd defaced page here and there, but if you had some patience some kind soul would happen along and revert it. I didn’t realize just how easy it was back then or I would have probably done it myself, reverting, that is.

I’ve been looking into a fairly informal program to train people for wiki editing, like I don’t already have better things to be doing, and am slowly beginning to at least understand where those odd rules come from.

While wikipedia and encyclopedias seem very similar on the surface, what makes wikipedia unique is that it’s written primarily by lay people, non-experts, though I still believe the people who wrote/write/maintain the vast majority of pages are probably closer to being an expert on those topics than most. Encyclopedias on the other hand are allegedly written by experts to be an authoritative source. A proper wiki page should be citing written authoritative source(s).

It’s more of an accumulation of knowledge, with links, and not an authoritative source in it’s own right. It is technically against the rules to include original research, and probably to add a link to your own research as well, though I’m not certain about that last bit.

So from an academic standpoint, wikipedia isn’t an authoritative source in it’s own right. Man is it a great starting point though, and pretty transparent too. I can see every edit ever made to a page, what was changed, when, and to some extent, which user made the change. I heard an analogy a couple of days ago to defacing a wiki page being like graffiti, but in a world where it’s easier to take the spraypaint off the wall than to put it on.

The fact that it works and is useful is a miracle in and of itself. That on an internet where naming polls often lead to Namey McNameface, if not something more offensive, we can have such a vast amount of fairly reliable, if not directly cite-able, knowledge, maintained by roughly 100,000 volunteers. You can also typically click through to, and cite, the original sources as well. Really not that much harder than citing wikipedia itself. In cases where academic or journalistic integrity is important, it should really be done anyway.

For the average grade school paper though, I think it’s a bit overkill. Wikipedia has more than proved it’s reliability at this point, and rules can always be changed later if anything untoward happens. Hopefully that won’t be the case in my lifetime. All they need is about tree-fiddy.

2 thoughts on “Wikipedia and Citation

  1. Is doubtful accuracy or inadequate authority the reason Wikipedia is banned, though? Isn’t the point that students are supposed to be learning how to research for themselves? Wikipedia is a single resource and a fairly fragile one at that. Its universality and availability do indeed make it an obvious first choice but if all you learn is that you can go to Wikipedia for the answers, what do you do when Wikipedia isn’t there any more, which could happen any day?

    I use it all the time but I know how to find stuff without using it, too. That, I’m guessing, is the skill that educational establishments are trying to help students acquire. Certainly, no-one’s really interested in the actual information. You aren’t expected to retain much of it beyond the exam. You’re supposed to retain the methodology and tools that allowed you to acquire it and if that amounts to “I checked Wikipedia” you really haven’t gained much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well fortunately they’ve done their best to plan for unexpected problems, but you never know.

      I think it really depends on grade level though. Critical thinking isn’t a skill that’s overly appreciated or well taught in the American education system, but one that’s essential in identifying good sources. Encouraging them to use Wikipedia at least leads them to a less biased starting point instead of relying on whatever pops up in a google search.

      If we’re going to do that though, we should make sure we’re teaching why. I shouldn’t have to wait until I’m an adult and look into it to understand it. Maybe they do that too, I don’t know. I was never in a position to need to know that and I honestly haven’t written a proper graded essay in… 18 years? Give or take.


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