Recently I have come to realize that (too) many professors have a profound disdain for Wikipedia. Although I sometimes encounter this disdain directly, most of the time I see contempt for Wikipedia reflected through my students. These stupid professorial attitudes about Wikipedia tend to cast a pretty unflattering reflection off of their students. It is time that we — as practitioners who help guide our students’ access to and interpretation of information — get smarter about Wikipedia. If we do not, we risk leaving our students with overly-simplistic ideas about what information to trust.
In many of my courses, we do in-class exercises designed to help students negotiate various web- and library-based sources of information. One such activity is chronicled here. My general approach in these activities is to give students some basic advice on how to find good sources, frame some sort of goal (what information do we want?), and then turn them loose to post what they find on a learning management system forum. Once they post a variety of sources, I ask them to look at their collection and consider which sources are reliable and which are not. Sometimes I also ask them to consider the kind of scientific sources they have located: primary, secondary, or tertiary. I have found this kind of activity to be productive because it forces students to confront a real information challenge, obtain real sources, and then consider which sources are worth using.
Often, I ask them to summarize what might qualify or disqualify a source. I am looking for actual characteristics of sources that make them reliable or unreliable. Assessing the reliability of information sources is a subtle art, and as we do these sorts of exercises I am on the lookout for overly-simplistic rules. Not infrequently students suggest that the URL domain name is a good signifier of reliability, so I try my best to explain why a source from a “.edu” site does not provide much advantage over a source from a “.com” site. In addition to suggesting a lot of insightful criteria, students come with all manner of wacky “rules of thumb” for judging website reliability, but none as strange as the “Wikipedia rule”. Not infrequently, students suggest this sort of criteria for disqualifying a source:
An article found on a forum or Wikipedia; a site that can be edited by anyone.
The forum part is not a problem for me: I agree that — unless accompanied by some other cited support — it is not a good idea to trust what someone claims on an open forum. But is Wikipedia equivalent to an open chat forum? And is the “don’t trust anything than can be edited by anyone” rule a valuable one?
I say “no”, with increasing ferocity.
Student attitudes about Wikipedia — or what they perceive are the attitudes that they should communicate to their professors — are shaped by what their teachers say about Wikipedia. From what I can tell, a lot of educators are telling students not to trust Wikipedia. It is strange and telling that many educators have such an allergy to Wikipedia. The root of this allergy seems to be the fact that anyone can edit a Wikipedia article. The adverse reaction that the open-source nature of Wikipedia engenders seems to stem from a mixture of misunderstanding and elitism.
It is a misunderstanding of how Wikipedia works to suggest that just because anyone can edit an article that article is unreliable. As a lot of educators tell it, Wikipedia is subject to mass vandalism by people trying to spread misinformation (my daughter had a middle school teacher who went so far as to tell her students that she intentionally sabotaged Wikipedia on a regular basis, a claim that seems as far-fetched as it is unflattering). This impression flies in the face of how Wikipedia actually works. As anyone who has tried to contribute to Wikipedia can attest, changing the “encyclopedia of the people” is not so simple as logging on and vandalizing away. It turns out that there are a substantial number of people who voluntarily guard Wikipedia against vandalism, updating and changing entries that appear to be false. This does not mean that there is nothing on Wikipedia that is wrong, but it also means that the idea that the site is the equivalent to a bathroom wall is misleading. Wikipedia encourages the use of citations to back up claims in articles, and its users pretty rigorously assess its content for bias and statements that are solely based on opinion. There is an effective — if not perfect — system of quality control on Wikipedia.
If the way Wikipedia is structured is designed to deal with the problem of unreliable information, why do so many educated people misrepresent the site as inherently unreliable? One reason that people misunderstand and then misrepresent things is that they possess a pre-existing bias that prevents them from clearly seeing what is in plain sight. I suspect that many educators misunderstand how Wikipedia works because they cannot get around their own elitism. I cannot help but notice that many of the people who are most averse to Wikipedia are the kind of rules-followers who tend to be successful at earning advanced degrees. You play by the rules, you make your sacrifices, and you enter into the priesthood of the elite, right? Only highly-educated people should be writing books and publishing definitive explanations of the world’s most important topics, right? These seem to be the underlying premises of the anti-Wikipedians, and I can see why they have this reaction: to the uninformed, Wikipedia seems to be the information playground of the rabble. Whether it is true that the editors of Wikipedia really are the uneducated masses could be subject to rigorous study, but just the possibility that it might be seems to bug a lot of academic elites.
There is a huge opportunity cost associated with telling our students not to use Wikipedia. In an age where information literacy is critical, Wikipedia offers an unparalleled opportunity to assess how information is constructed. We should not be teaching our students about Wikipedia‘s lack of reliability: we should be teaching our students about Wikipedia’s limitations and potentials. The site is an ideal place to engage students on the issue of how to assess the reliability of a source. Looking at a given article, we can ask “does it have proper citations?”. If we want, we can follow those citations to assess their validity. The editing process of Wikipedia is remarkably transparent. By clicking on the “view history” tab of any Wikipedia article, we can see who has edited an article. It is usually pretty easy to see how diverse the contributors are, how much they have disagreed on the content of an article, and how much scrutiny the article has received. If we want, we can even go so far as to see who has been editing the article and what other kinds of editing they do. Many times, you will find that the editors of particular articles are particularly qualified to write on the topic at hand. Sometimes you discover that they are not. This process of discovery is critical, as it models the broader process of locating and assessing the sources of all forms of information. Oftentimes, I find far more to inspire my confidence in a given Wikipedia article than I do articles in mainstream media outlets. And that is an important subtlety that is lost when we teach our students to follow simplistic rules like “don’t trust Wikipedia“: we ought to be teaching our students that they can trust nothing, and that all sources are potentially fallible until properly assessed. We lose a chance to teach them about the nature of information when we label some kinds of information valid (for example New York Times = reliable) and others invalid (for example Wikipedia = unreliable).
Wikipedia is a wonderful starting place for most topics. I use the site all of the time to get a basic sense of a topic. If my research really matters, of course I never stop at Wikipedia, both because I generally want to learn about a topic at more depth and because I want to check out the validity of the Wikipedia page. My worry is not that my students visit Wikipedia but that they end their research journey at Wikipedia. We ought to be teaching our students how to springboard off of Wikipedia, and to value it for what it is: an inspired “encyclopedia of the people” with unparalleled potential for providing a critical starting place for all kinds of research. We learn a lot more by treating Wikipedia as the complicated information source that it actually is than by disregarding it based on an inaccurate caricature of its shortcomings.A Major Post, Altruism, Cooperation, Cultural Evolution, Information Literacy, Reciprocity, Reputation, Social Norms, Teaching