Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Wikipedia Dilemma

By Noah Geisel

This school year, millions of students will participate in the time-honored tradition of writing research papers. They will formulate a thesis statement and seek out evidence from reliable sources that supports their claims. In recent years, this seemingly straightforward premise has been complicated by the definition of what constitutes reliable sources.

Some of these students will be told by their skeptical instructors that they may not use any information found on the web. I worry about the sustainability of this approach as newspaper, magazine and traditional book publishing are dwindling and some libraries are moving toward closing their stacks altogether.

Many more students will be told that Wikipedia is not a reliable source. For some, this is a no-brainer while for others it is a travesty. The key question in this debate has nothing to do with Wikipedia or any other source. What we need to be asking ourselves is: What is the point of the research paper? Five, fifteen and fifty years from now, do we want students to know the information they learned from their research topics or is the real value in what future graduates will be able to do, namely seek out information, evaluate it for relevance and accuracy and, ultimately, analyze and synthesize it in order to make an informed argument? If you are in the former camp, you can stop reading now and skip down to comments section to tell me how foolish I am.

For those of us in the latter camp, I believe we need to re-think our approach to defining reliable sources. We need to ask ourselves if we are doing students any favors by compartmentalizing for them which sources are authoritative and reliable and which are not. Even if we coach our students to steer clear of Wikipedia, fringe media and news sources they have never heard of, we are not shielding them from seizing on erroneous information. Three examples:

1. Investigative journalism found in such mainstream sources as The New Republic, Harper’s and Rolling Stone may safely be considered reliable. If you are going to tell your students what is and is not reliable however, just make sure they avoid articles written for these magazines by Stephen Glass, who was fired from them all in 1998 when it was found that he had fabricated all or parts of dozens of stories on topics as important as the Clinton White House and the D.A.R.E. program.

2. For a few hours one morning last March, many were duped into believing that Cheif Justice Roberts was resigning from the Supreme Court. Georgetown Law professor Peter Tague, an indisputably authoritative source, assured his class that he had inside information that Roberts would be resigning and within minutes the news had been picked up by a number of “reliable” news organizations, based on the students' tweets and FB updates. Thirty minutes later, Tague revealed to his students that it was a prank intended to show them that even reliable sources could disseminate inaccurate information.

3. While eating at a chain restaurant last summer, my friend at the head of the table had a different tip total everyone needed to chip in than I did. I asked him to double-check his math but he smugly pointed to the tip calculator printed at the bottom of the receipt and boasted that the computer had already done the math for him. Five people then pulled out their cell phones and jaws dropped as we discovered that the tip calculator was not a reliable source. The 18% calculation was actually over 25%.

A teacher’s blanket assertion that Wikipedia and other web-based sources are not reliable is troubling as it falls prey to the very trap we want our students avoid: not thinking for themselves. Clive Thompson has an article in this month’s issue of Wired in which he presents research suggesting that students today are not effective at searching for information. He minces no words in assessing the problem: “...the ability to judge information is almost never taught in school.”

It is essential that as we prepare students for post-secondary success in the 21st Century, we use the research paper as an opportunity to teach critical thinking skills not only in employing sources to support their opinions but in evaluating the sources. In the case of Wikipedia, there are plenty of academic entries that have been compiled by reliable sources and peer reviewed for accuracy. These should be fair game as sources. The answer to the Wikipedia Dilemma is not in telling students where they should and should not look for information but in equipping them with the skills needed to exercise due diligence in assessing the reliability of their sources.

One solution specific to the Wikipedia Dilemma that may make everyone happy could be the introduction of a new protocol for annotated bibliographies. If students choose to cite a Wikipedia entry, they would also be expected to sub-cite the information by seeking the original source of a specific claim in the References at the bottom of the page and stating how they had verified it for reliability.


  1. If Wikipedia is the only source, then the subject has not been thoroughly researched. It can serveas a source. Research and reporting has always been about getting the story from more than one view. Reading and evaluating research has always been about analyzing the bibliography.

  2. great to see this debate ongoing - spent a long time thinking and writing about this before new job took over my life. there's a lot more to add to the discussion, ranging from the philosophical (the nature of knowledge, 'correct' vs popular conviction etc) to the practical (occasions when Wikipedia is a unique source, which links to the build and background functionality of the site and its writing and editing community).

    Got to stop or I'll never get to bed, but happy to see this topic alive!

  3. I like having students evaluate the sources referenced in Wikipedia. On a recent Nerdist podcast, one Wikipedian talked about the fact that ideally, information should be referenced elsewhere. As a librarian, I agree that students should learn evaluation skills. Otherwise, they'll believe anything. Nice post!

  4. Great post Noah!
    The great thing about Wikipedia is that people can correct wrong information. A good excersize for a student would be to find a mistake, submit a correction and have a credible source associated with the correction. That would enrich the world of information and teach critical thinking.

  5. Yes, Wikipedia is a great resource! I use it all the time for pretty much everything.

    That said, as a teacher I will NOT and probably NEVER will permit its use as an authoritative source (the same way I also do not permit the use of encyclopedias as sources unless it is for trivial facts). Students ask me where to find information. I tell them "Start with Wikipedia" and they respond with "But sir, you don't allow us to use it." and I respond with "You can use it! You can't use it as a source. Use Wikipedia to find the original source for the information, verify the information and cite THAT source."

    Writing articles like these is easy since they're 'cutting edge' and are critical of the old guard. Yes, we do want to teach our students "how to learn" but the problem is that too many teachers take this to heart and pump out students who lack KNOWLEDGE.

    Recently a high school chemistry student asked why he needed to learn the charges and names of polyatomic ions. In response, I asked him to explain to me how he was able to ask me that question without the use of a dictionary? Since he is bright and had once upon a blue moon heard my spiel about chemistry being a language he very quickly put two and two together to figure out that there was value in learning polyatomic ions AND their charges. Yes, you can look things up, but if you don't have an INTRINSIC store of knowledge you likely won't be able to do a whole lot of anything with only your SKILLS!

  6. Nicely considered post, Noah.

    I agree with the consensus that Wikipedia is a great place to begin but then I always direct my students to look for the annotated bibliographies at the bottom of each entry for their citable sources. You're also right that the purpose of the research paper must constantly be examined. It is important that it be used as an exercise for organizing thoughts, learning new information and analyzing sources of information. It is essential for the creation of new ideas and information and one that I fear is endangered by the testing mentality of the past few decades. Common Core Standards, however, give reason to hope in the future.

  7. I think this is a great article that you wrote. It is full of goo information and examples to back up your statements. Grammatically, it seems to flow very well and I don't see any obvious mistakes. I am finally coming to the realization that I need to learn to use the web for my research. Great job.

  8. Great post. It is true: the most important thing for students is to learn how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources. This is no easy task with the huge amount of information that gets thrown at us every second, from every direction. As teachers we should indeed do more to help our students develop a set of skills that will help them navigate this storm of information for the rest of their lives. I am myself a Wikipedia fan, but I agree it should be used with caution and never as the only source.

  9. I'm an experienced Wikipedia editor, and a Wikipedia article itself should never be considered a reliable source. We don't allow one Wikipedia article to be used as a source for another Wikipedia article. Instead, students should be encouraged to read the truly reliable sources listed as references at the bottom of any well-written article. Then they should seek out other high-quality sources, and see if different conclusions can be drawn. That could lead to the student improving the Wikipedia article, a genuine benefit to accessible human knowledge.

  10. In case anyone stumbles back on this post, here's a link to a contrary point of view from the higher ed world:


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