Be wary of Wikipedia

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February 13, 2007

9:15 AM

College professors nationwide have grown tired of their students’ mindless reliance on Wikipedia. More than ever, students are citing the online encyclopedia as their primary (and secondary and tertiary) source of misinformation. Last month, Middlebury College’s history department decided to ban students from citing Wikipedia in academic work. Professors nationwide have followed suit.

p. I visited the wiki-misinformation superhighway, searching “Wikipedia.” Wikipedia is a branch of the Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Thousands of members continually edit the site, with changes “made available immediately on the Web, without formal peer review … Wikipedia allows almost anyone to edit.” Since it doesn’t require one’s identity, it continues to be a target of “vandalism.” One of the co-founders noted, “When someone writes ‘fuck, fuck, fuck,’ we fix it, laugh, [and] move on.”

p. Students, however, find Wikipedia as a great shortcut to reading, researching and studying. Many use it as a second source, when Sparknotes isn’t enough. Most students frequent Wikipedia for information, but have sense enough to take their findings with a grain of salt. Most professors seem to have no problem with students using Wikipedia as a starting point in whatever research they are involved in, but don’t accept it as a source “in itself.”

p. A college education demands more than two clicks of a mouse. There must be a reason why teachers require their students to actually engage in dense readings and extensive research projects — no, it’s not because they’re maniacal luddites, or sadists who take pleasure in their student’s squalors; some believe that an old-school approach to research yields a fruition of knowledge not retainable otherwise. Since most students aren’t used to reading for more than two minutes at a given time, they find themselves losing focus, losing interest and losing consciousness altogether.

p. Traditional approaches to research demand time and attention, neither of which we have in this day and age. So, Wikipedia is both the starting and finishing point for many. This may arise from a general lack of experience with extensive research reading. Wikipedia is an image of our age, where we are our persons of the year, our source of entertainment on the web, our official editors-in-chief and educators of the masses.

p. With this comes the problem of accountability. Since there’s no one to blame, no harm has been made and no damage done. Ex-co-founder Larry Sanger argues that there is a lack of respect for people who know what they’re talking about: “Nearly everyone with much expertise but little patience will avoid editing Wikipedia, because they will be forced to defend their edits on article discussion pages against attacks by nonexperts.” Other criticisms include a bias of interests. People are writing what they want to read and not what’s expected in an encyclopedia.

p. In response to Sanger, an anonymous blogger asked, “How about you damn elites, you crème de la academia, stop being such snobs? I want to learn, yes, but I don’t want to listen to your highly decorated speech patterns. I want to get to point A to point B without taking a detour into bookworm-land. Make it fun, make it exciting, and stop jerking your intellectual sperm all over what otherwise could have been a fine article for those ignorant of your field to begin with.”

p. We all know that any idiot can erroneously contribute to Wikipedia. Maybe we should consider this the next time we’re studying for an exam. Use it as a source, and you’ll spend the entire night trying to verify it.

__Sherif Abdelkarim, a sophomore at the College, is a Staff Columnist. His columns appear every Tuesday.__

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