Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Student Advises: Don't Cite Wikipedia

Soumya Srinagesh, a student intern at C|Net News, advises her peers not to rely on Wikipedia as a primary source.

This advice comes to the same end conclusion as that given by Wikipedia co-founder Jim Wales' own advice not to use Wikipedia --or any Encyclopedia-- as a sole or primary source.

The usual back and forth in this debate is that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, and that you might use an entry before it's been vetted and re-edited by other Wikipedians for accuracy (or something closer to it). That's the tack Sinagresh takes, and its legitimate enough. But Wales makes a larger point about the role encyclopedia's should have in research. They're meant to be starting places not end places. If you take Wales' point to heart, then the argument over Wikipedia's accuracy is less important (though it still matters). Diligent students should in fact use it as a start and then seek out richer sources on the subjects they're writing about. And they should reconcile any discrepancies they find in their further research --was Wikipedia accurate, or is the other source accurate when facts are not in agreement? How will they know? What does the difference mean? What does a third source say? If they determine Wikipedia is wrong, should they go back and edit Wikipedia?

The process of leaving Wikipedia instead of ending there opens up a new view of the research process and the social negotiations that go on to determine what is fact and what isn't.

But what's really intriguing about Srinagesh's piece is not the part about Wiki's communal editing practices, but these two observations:

1. "Unlike search engines, Wikipedia searches do not bombard you with thousands of sites that have little or no relation to the subject you are researching."
2. "Unlike traditional textbooks, Wikipedia articles do not require a trip to the library, but are available from the comfort of your home or dorm."

On the first: Wikipedia as a search engine substitute, a guide entry into a topic instead of relying on search engines makes a lot of sense. I never thought of Wikipedia as a search engine before, but of course it is. It's entries are a communal version of what tries to do. So guiding students to start at Wikipedia in much the same way they might start research with Google or Yahoo might be a good way to lead them to a wiser use of Wikipedia.

On the second: There's a lot of comfort to be found in a library. Heck, on college campuses these days kids even wear pajamas to the library, how much comfortable can you get? But the real comfort is having the library's collection at hand. When researching, students will often come across sources that are only in the library. So why not go to the library and use a computer there and call up Wikipedia to get started if that's what works, but then use its content to cull keyword ideas and subject search terms that can be used in the library's online card catalog or databased journals collections?

The purpose of good textbooks is to guide students into their libraries, not to make it easier for them to avoid them. Besides, today's libraries are more and more hives of communal learning, with technology centers, places for students to get coffee and to talk, collaborative workstations and group study rooms, and most important and useful of all, people you can talk to if you're stuck: reference librarians. Who wouldn't want to go a library to do research? It beats sitting alone in your home or dorm. Grab some friends and go to the library, find a big table, spread out your stuff, and have both the whole Internet and the whole collection in the library at your disposal. Why have so little --a lone computer with an Internet connection by yourself in your dorm-- when you can have so much to help you do research?