Waiting on Wikipedia

Recently while I was teaching a class the instructor asked me whether I thought that Wikipedia would ever come to be considered a generally trustworthy, credible source. I always talk about Wikipedia in my one-shot instruction sessions, especially with first year students, but this was the first time I’d ever gotten a question along those lines. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

In my classes I point out to students that most of us — students, faculty, librarians, everyone — use Wikipedia all the time. My usual strategy for talking about Wikipedia in library instruction is likely similar to many librarians: I show students how to use it for brainstorming and background information, suggest that they mine the references, and point out the View history link to show them how the entry has changed. I end by noting that Wikipedia is a great place to start but that students shouldn’t cite it in their assignments because it’s much too general, just as they wouldn’t cite a general print encyclopedia. Instead, they should use Wikipedia to point them to other resources that are more appropriate for use in college work.

But I do wonder when Wikipedia will cross the line into acceptable-for-use-as-a-cited-source territory. Will it ever? Has it already?

Full disclosure: I cited Wikipedia in a scholarly journal article I wrote last year. I had what I thought were (and still think are) good reasons. I was writing about using games in information literacy instruction, and I used Wikipedia to define several specific genres of videogames. I felt that the Wikipedia definitions for those types of games were more current and accurate than definitions I found in other published sources. In this case the fluidity and impermanence of Wikipedia were assets. Genres and micro-genres can evolve and change quickly, and I think that most Wikipedia entries on popular culture (in which I’d include videogames) are probably written and edited by fans of those topics. There’s an argument to be made that those fans are the subject experts, so it’s the information they’ve put together that I was most confident in citing. While one of the peer reviewers did note the Wikipedia citations, the journal editor and I discussed it and agreed to keep them.

Of course, Wikipedia won’t always be the best source. Right now I’m working on writing up the results of a project and needed to find the construction dates for campus buildings at one of my research sites. After scouring the college’s website with no luck, I stumbled upon the information in Wikipedia only to come up against a dilemma I’m sure our students face all the time: the information seems true, it’s not blatantly, obviously false, but there’s no citation for it. In this case I didn’t feel comfortable citing Wikipedia so I emailed the college archivist for more information, which she quickly and graciously provided. But what do our students do in a situation like this? There won’t always be a readily identifiable person or source to check with for more information.

According to this recent article in the Atlantic, Wikipedia seems to be moving into a more mature phase. The rate at which Wikipedia articles are edited is decreasing, as is the rate for adding new articles. What does this slowdown mean for Wikipedia? Is it really “nearing completion,” as the article suggests? And when Wikipedia is finished, will it then become a citable source?

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

10 thoughts on “Waiting on Wikipedia”

  1. (Full disclosure: of late i have become more involved in editing WP.)

    Wikipedia will become citable when people are no longer told not to cite it.

  2. Lots of food for thought. I generally teach Wikipedia the same way and I’m unsure whether it will reach the point of maturity and reliability that would make it a top-notch resource. I would advise against telling students not to cite wikipedia, however. I know in some disciplines citing an encyclopedia is taboo, but in others it is expected. The freshmen I teach have a hard enough time understanding when to cite sources– to tell them it’s ok to use Wikipedia when you’re starting your research but that you shouldn’t cite it can lead to confusion. Hearing that message, many students will simply lift or poorly paraphrase passages from Wikipedia without proper citation. This is plagiarism of course. I’d rather they cite something correctly, even if it is wikipedia, than get into a habit of not citing at all. The conversation about what resources to USE in a paper can follow suite much more productively if they’ve at least cited their (unreliable) sources properly first.

  3. It seems unlikely that it’ll ever venture into “worthy to cite” territory, though I love your example of when it’s fluidity is actually beneficial. I have found that fewer instructors tell their students to NEVER use it and instead spend more time on the when and how to use it. So maybe it will never be “cite-worthy”, but it’s definitely coming along.

  4. The URL for Minority Report has an error of just one character: the correct one is: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minority_Report_(film) [It would have been faster just to look it up than to type out the url and say it’s in error.]

    As far as the article, I’d say the author is somewhat behind the times. People in areas of science have said that areas of articles in Wikipedia rival the equivalent entries in general encyclopedias.

    I also am a Wikipedia editor and when I find something in need of amplification – I don’t waste my time complaining – I make it better. Indeed, writers have noted that as Wikipedia matures, it may be loosing “numbers” of editors, but the quality of editing is becoming deeper and more thoughtful. Editing Wikipedia is being taught, and there are classes that use Wikipedia in conjunction with a comparison of research sources and citation.

  5. Thanks for all of these great comments, everyone! Darcy, you make a great point re: the dangers of telling students *not* to cite, especially given how easy it is to paraphrase poorly. It’s so tricky in a one-shot, though, since we don’t tend to see their papers after they’ve cited their sources (reliable or unreliable).

    I’ve been intrigued to see the partnerships between Wikipedia and educators/colleges/universities, as Bob points out. I hope we see more of these in the future — I think they’re a great way to both make Wikipedia better *and* engage students in meaningful work with an impact beyond their classrooms.

  6. Hi I’m a bit late with this. I’m with Bob and others in that I edit Wikipedia and if I see something wrong or missing I add it. I do think there are cases where the Wikipedia article is going to be a “good enough” reference, but I think it’s critical that Wikipedia article lead to authoritative sources, which can be found in libraries. Do you have a list of sources that you’d like students to use, on particular topics? Add them to the related Wikipedia article, under related sources. That way your students (and others) will find them (and are more likely to find them than a library pathfinder!).

    A final point: Wikipedia is an encyclopedia — for many assignments, a professor wouldn’t allow her students to cite an encyclopedia article. In these cases Wikipedia shouldn’t be considered something other than an encyclopedia.

  7. Great point, Merrilee, librarians and other faculty should absolutely add better sources to Wikipedia articles that are relevant to their students’ work.

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