The Great Wikipedia Debate

Via Altercation: A New York Times article on the decision of the Middlebury College history department to ban students from citing Wikipedia in their papers and exams. While I recognize that Wikipedia has its limits, I’ll join the chorus of those who think this policy is a bad idea, but this debate illustrates the degree to which educators will need to rethink how they teach academic research.

Like Jason Mittell, who is heavily quoted in the article, I think the history department’s policy misses a tremendous opportunity for thinking about changes in research methods and knowledge acquisition. In fact, like Jason, I have assignments in one of my classes requiring students to participate in a course blog and wiki. In my case, I have asked students to contribute to a course wiki rather than editing or adding to an existing wiki such as Wikipedia (others are obviously welcome to participate in the blog and the wiki). While the blog and wiki are relatively rudimentary, I think its useful to consider how these forms can inform our goals as educators and researchers. Such activities seem far more effective in thinking about information literacy than an outright ban on using certain sources.

That being said, I encourage students to think critically about such sources as Wikipedia, namely its status as an encyclopedia that offers very little in the way of specialized knowledge and one that may be more subject to factual errors than other encyclopedias. But banning Wikipedia prevents us from having some valuable conversations about how these online tools can be used.

Update: Tim Anderson has a useful defense of Wikipedia on the MediaCommons blog. I’m inclined to agree with Tim that Wikipedia can be especially useful in tracking popular culture ephemera that might otherwise fall beneath the academic radar or get caught up in academic publishing limbo. While he’s right to argue that Wikipedia may appear to be poor starting point for researching events or texts that have been discussed for decades, if not centuries, the site can be of value for those of us who teach and study popular culture.


  1. JBJ Said,

    February 22, 2007 @ 7:20 pm

    Because I have wiki, blog, and assignments (as well as some other online things), I’m actually pretty comfortable banning Wikipedia as a source, just as I do any other general-purpose encyclopedia. (Somewhat amusingly, a nontrivial # of students refer to our class wiki as “wikipedia.”)

    However, that doesn’t mean we can’t turn to it as an example of wiki practice.

    And I even am fine with students bookmarking one or two Wikipedia pages in, with the caveat that they Really, Really Ought to find more interesting/useful things pretty quickly.

  2. jillbryant Said,

    February 23, 2007 @ 1:03 am

    i think they should ban wikipedia as a source. wikipedia is supposed to source most of its info so why shouldn’t the students go to the source info also….

  3. Chuck Said,

    February 23, 2007 @ 9:39 am

    JBJ and jill, these are good points, of course. I do think it’s important to push students towards other sources, but I’m less certain that banning Wikipedia will get that result.

  4. Jason Mittell Said,

    February 23, 2007 @ 7:14 pm

    Thanks for the discussion of this issue – just an alert that I’ve got a longer follow up post about Wikipedia & Middlebury on my blog

  5. Chuck Said,

    February 23, 2007 @ 7:33 pm

    Thanks for the update, Jason. This has turned into an interesting debate.

  6. lakessagaskin Said,

    March 20, 2007 @ 11:05 am

    It’s not for surly accurate, so their should be limits.

  7. TM Said,

    June 13, 2007 @ 9:26 pm

    As Anderson said of Wikipedia in his blog entry, “begin here, don’t end here.”

    I say the exact same thing to my students…some of whom then go on and quote it anyway in lieu of doing the full research.

    Most guides to research written for undergraduates make extensive note against the use of encyclopedias for research [or doing so properly in appropriate proportion]. Wikipedia is new; therefore, I can see WHY Middlebury [and other colleges and universities] need to make a special rule. Hopefully, all forthcoming editions of research guidebooks should [will?!?!] have an extensive discussion of how and when to use Wikipedia and similar [online] sources.

    Most contemporary undergraduates realize that citing Britannica is wrong, but Wikipedia’s net-ubiquity fools them into ignoring how it constructs knowledge for users. I teach them about it at length, but there are a whole bunch who ignore me, cite MSN Encarta, cite Wikipedia, cite pieces of journalism as scholarly sources, and so on.

    I too whole-heartedly recommend students start with Wikipedia for general interest information…as they should with any encyclopedia. And it’s especially useful for anything in popular culture [at least for basic information]. Where else can one find an entry on *I Married Dora*?!?!?!

  8. Chuck Said,

    June 13, 2007 @ 9:47 pm

    Like you, I discourage my students from citing Wikipedia in their papers, but I have reservations about banning the site altogether. Instead of imposing a Wikipedia ban from above, I think it’s important to discuss the site with my students and to get a better understanding of why it works and where it might not work. Most studies have shown that Wikipedia is no less accurate than Britannica, but obviously its scope is limited.

    That being said, the popular culture entries are often quite thorough.

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