Archive Opinion The Orion

Wikipedia sucks students in with reliable information

January 1, 2007

The elephant population across the world tripled in the first half of 2006.

Well, not exactly.

But Stephen Colbert used this false fact to support his theory of Wikiality, or the belief that if enough people thought something was true, the facts couldn’t get in the way. To prove his theory, he sent his viewers to edit many entries on Wikipedia with special “facts” he provided.

Now, history students at Middlebury College in Vermont are being told not to cite Wikipedia in research papers.

Thusly, we have a new entry into the “They Actually Had to Say It” hall of fame.

Wikipedia is a valuable resource. It has information you couldn’t find anywhere else, and most of it is correct.

But slips in accuracy should make an average college student stop and think that maybe he shouldn’t include in his paper that bears are “godless killing machines” – another Colbert fact.

Even Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, has said not to use it as a source.

“For God’s sake, you’re in college. Don’t cite the encyclopedia,” Wales said at a conference last year.

The site acts as an open-source encyclopedia. In technology, open-source refers to software whose source code has been released to developers to improve on.

For the less tech-savvy, think of someone building half of a jigsaw puzzle, getting stuck and then letting someone else work on it.

Wikipedia is a massive puzzle that was started in 2001 with a few pieces of knowledge and has since been added to by many users. The problem is that not everybody knows how to put the pieces in the proper way.

Chico State doesn’t have a policy condemning the use of Wikipedia as an academic source, nor should it. That decision is left to individual departments and professors who typically aren’t thrilled to see the site cited.

“Most professors I have worked with are not crazy about Wikipedia citations in bibliographies,” said Sarah Blakeslee, head of information and instruction at Meriam Library.

To wake freshmen up to this reality, Blakeslee uses Colbert’s elephant facts as example of the site’s biggest weakness.

“Anyone can edit anything on Wikipedia,” she said.

There are no publishers, professional editors or even experts to proofread the articles before changes are posted on the site, Blakeslee said.

But even with these potential downsides, the library’s Web site still lists Wikipedia under the encyclopedia section.

“I think it’s an incredible resource,” Blakeslee said.

The elastic nature of the site allows for even more topics and faster updates than books, academic journals or magazines. Pop culture and current events are covered much more thoroughly on Wikipedia than in most publications.

“Sometimes I’ll go on and read about somebody dying, and it’ll be updated on Wikipedia,” Blakeslee said. “There’s no other encyclopedia that could keep up to the minute like Wikipedia can.”

Because of its thoroughness and ability to be updated in real time, Wikipedia can act as a rudder to point students in the right direction to the information they’re trying to find, she said.

Outside of that, Blakeslee had one piece of advice for students about Wikipedia.

“If it’s not important, it’s a good source.”