a statement on Wikipedia by a college professor

Wikipedia.org is often berated by college professors as an unacceptable source in undergraduate papers. I, however, have no qualms whatsoever about college students using Wikipedia as a source in their papers.

It must be assumed, with respect to almost any topic a human person can give name to, that a Wikipedia article on the subject represents the bare minimum of what an educated person ought to know of the subject. In case after case, I have found Wikipedia informative — and profligately so in some subject areas. My own experience with Wikipedia suggests that it always surpasses the print encyclopedias in breadth, and that it quite often surpasses them in depth as well.

Wikipedia frequently serves as a repository of reference terminology and raw data, and usually offers a decent entry level discussion of the topics it treats; and what topic is not treated in Wikipedia? If there is an admixture of ineptitude or bias (other than the inevitable systemic and endemic ones) in Wikipedia articles, it can usually be detected fairly easily and corrected for by further investigation.

What I tell students is Wikipedia can profitably serve as a starting point for research, especially if it is used in conjunction with other, more traditional encyclopedic sources. But I also teach that further investigation is always mandatory. I may even encourage students to read multiple Wikipedia articles on various aspects of a topic before beginning their investigation in earnest. I thereafter direct them to the more advanced sources I typically want to see being used. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with Wikipedia — and there’s a lot about it that’s right! — but woe unto that student who allows research to start and end at Wikipedia.

Finally it should not have to be said, yet it must be said, so I will say it: Wikipedia, like any source, must be used ethically and responsibly. One must not cut and paste from Wikipedia (or any source). One cannot cite, repeat or even imitate phrases or passages from Wikipedia without properly marking them as quotations. Whether it is the lowly Wikipedia or the most respected scholarly tome, you have to cite the sources you consult in footnotes and bibliography whenever and wherever such sources contribute to your presentation of a topic. But y’all knew that already.

  3 comments for “a statement on Wikipedia by a college professor

  1. Seth C.
    December 26, 2010 at 1:20 am

    A truly fitting blog post for Christmas day – Wikipedia, as refined as it is by administrators and users, is one of the places to start one’s research but certainly not to end it. The woes of Wikipedia is when students plagiarize the material or as you also said, start and end their research there. I get funny looks when I tell my fellow undergraduates that Wikipedia is acceptable to use for at least the general, popular basis of a topic and if cited, must be preceded by a statement like “The fans at Wikipedia say….” or something along the lines of that.

  2. Matt
    December 27, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    “The fans at Wikipedia say…” that’s good.

    I also like “As can be seen on Wikipedia, it is common knowledge that…” or “As everybody knows… [[quote]] … (‘Article Title,’ Wikipedia.org, DD/MM/YYYY).”

    Endless variations are possible.

  3. Seth C.
    December 28, 2010 at 11:10 pm

    Yes, endless variations are possible. Have you looked at the “Christianity” portal on Wikipedia? It’s pretty impressive.

what do you think?

%d bloggers like this: