Should librarians hate Wikipedia?

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 observa¬≠bility. 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?

4 thoughts on “Should librarians hate Wikipedia?

  1. drblsharma

    Sir- Knowledge is not a jam-packed box of books or a property of a an individual.It sould be shared by all.Hence, nothing wrong in shared by every one. Research comes after research or aftermath.So free ideas let come through any source. Thanks.

  2. Alison

    From what I have seen with our students, they will admit to going to Google and Wikipedia when they start their research. But they also realize that it’s not one-stop shopping, and they need to dig deeper. And I think that most of the time, they realize that without prodding from a librarian or professor. It probably also helps that the profs are specifying in their assignments that they need to have x number of journal articles, x number of books, and no more than x websites, or something to that effect.

    That said, the students at the schools my library serves come from good educational and economic backgrounds, so they have a leg up to begin with. I’m not so sure the students I saw in my colleague’s class at another university yesterday would realize that they need to keep going beyond Wikipedia.

  3. drblsharma

    In my previous comment I would like to add that Research is a different field than what the students have in the class room. and more over a teacher has tought them. One who is going for a research learn through step by step through different sources.Therefore, one source is not enough.Library at one place is good, whereas, wikipedia is good at another place.
    Students need both kind of knowledge.
    Therefore, both`s role are differentand hence ,one can`t replace the other.Thanks

  4. Pingback: ASIST08: Credibility and Authority of Information in Learning Environments « Words For Nerds

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