I just finished reading an article in the MIT Technology Review, Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth, by Simon L. Garfinkel, which brought up what I still consider a pretty touchy subject: What about Wikipedia? Is it an ok jumping off point for research, or should students (and librarians) avoid it at all costs?
Garfinkel argues that Wikipedia is fundamentally changing the nature of truth from an objective reality to something that is reliant on references and third-party sources of information, what the Wikipedia community calls verifiability. He writes, “Unlike the laws of mathematics or science, wikitruth isn’t based on principles such as consistency or observability. It’s not even based on common sense or firsthand experience. Wikipedia has evolved a radically different set of epistemological standards…”
I would argue, though, that as a reference source, Wikipedia’s epistemological standards are the same as any other reference source. Writers of encyclopedias don’t conduct original research, observing phenomena over time to make sure their articles are correct. They rely on vetted research which they can then quote and reference in footnotes and bibliographies. And that policy is Wikipedia’s policy.
Of course, it might be difficult to ensure that every article (how many are there now? 2.5 million?) is cited properly and based on appropriate scholarly sources. But from what I understand, their volunteers do a pretty darn good job of getting inaccurate and improperly cited articles branded awfully quickly.
As a librarian-in-training, I know there are hundreds of other perhaps-more-reliable reference sources out there, and I would encourage any one doing serious research to include those sources. But I have to admit that when I’m looking something up, I often start with Wikipedia. For example, last week I decided that I really wanted to find out more about this Bill Ayres character. The Wikipedia article on Bill Ayres is well-cited (and yes, I checked out a good handful of the citations as well), neutral in tone and information provided (even with all this craziness going on right now), and informative. Sure, if I was writing a paper on Bill Ayres, I wouldn’t stop there, but I sure as heck might start there, and I wouldn’t feel bad about suggesting that jumping off point to a student. But should I?
In all the articles I’ve read about The Big Bad Wikipedia, what I keep reading are lines like Garfinkel’s: “These standards affect students, whose research on many topics starts (and often ends) with Wikipedia.” It’s in the way the starting and ending moments of research are conflated in writers’ minds, if not in students’ actual research processes, where I think the issue of Wikipedia gets muddled.
And maybe I should do some research? Do students’ research processes often end with Wikipedia? Or are we teaching them enough about information and research so they know what they’re doing?
As for Garfinkel’s article, I think his claims are overblown. This is Wikipedia fear-mongering. In my years of research, both as a student and now, as a soon-to-be-librarian, citation was the be all and end all. Good citations are what make your research true. So how is Wikipedia any different?