Academic Prohibitions on Wikipedia are Misguided

A couple of months ago the Middlebury College history department banned students from citing Wikipedia in essays and exams. In particular the faculty statement said:

Whereas Wikipedia is extraordinarily convenient and, for some general purposes, extremely useful, it nonetheless suffers inevitably from inaccuracies deriving in large measure from its unique manner of compilation. Students are responsible for the accuracy of information they provide, and they cannot point to Wikipedia or any similar source that may appear in the future to escape the consequences of errors.

However their reasoning is fatally flawed, and speaks toward poor education and worse pedagogy.

I have never been to Middlebury College, nor am I familiar with their general rules for sources. However the nature of this statement suggests a very prejudiced view that favors traditional printed sources. Worse, it suggests that students are taught to trust some sources inherently and distrust others.

I agree with part of the statement, especially the bit about ” students are responsible for the accuracy of information they provide.” That’s sensible, and it is a principle I follow when evaluating my own student’s papers. If such a paper includes information I know to be false, the student is marked down for it, even if they can cite a reference for their claim. There is a lot of bad information out there, on the Web and off, and students need to learn to judge its reliability and confirm its accuracy. I will even warn a student off of a topic where I know they’re likely to encounter a lot of inaccurate and bad information, especially if I don’t think they yet have the experience or background to properly evaluate the sources.

It is the last sentence that really bothers me; the one that says “students cannot point to Wikipedia or any similar source that may appear in the future to escape the consequences of errors.” Well, yes, but why would you even state this? Does the Middlebury History Faculty mean to say that it is OK for a paper or exam to contain errors if the Enyclopedia Britannica can be cited to back up the errors? Why does the Wikipedia get called out for special treatment here? Why not treat all sources equally?

History texts are full of inaccurate and misleading information. College history professors know this. James W. Loewen explained in Lies My Teacher Told Me:

College teachers in most disciplines are happy when their students have had significant exposure to the subject before college. Not teachers in history. History teachers in college routinely put down high school history courses. A colleague of mine calls his survey of American history “Iconoclasm I and II,” because he sees his job as disabusing his charges of what they learned in high school. In no other field does this happen. Mathematics professors, for instance, know that non-Euclidean geometry is rarely taught in high school, but they don’t assume that Euclidean geometry was mistaught. Professors of English literature don’t presume that Romeo and Juliet was misunderstood in high school. Indeed, history is the only field in which the more courses students take, the stupider they become.

Primary sources are even more challenging than high school history textbooks. A historian can no more trust the report of a Civil War soldier than a journalist can trust the word of one fighting today in Iraq. Claims need to be confirmed, backed up by multiple sources, compared against things that are known to be true and things known to be false, and more. You cannot accept what you read blindly.

A proper education in history (and most other subjects) will help students learn to evaluate the reliability of various sources. They will learn how to challenge them and read between the lines. They will learn not to take any claim, in Wikipedia or elsewhere, at face value; but to consider the interests of the people who made the claim. This is what a proper education does.

The problem with Middlebury’s policy is that it says some sources are trustworthy and others aren’t. It does this by fiat, and apparently fiat based on the irrelevant criterion of whether a source is published with ink or electrons. The faculty also appear to be very concerned about Wikipedia’s “unique manner of compilation” that in fact seems to make Wikipedia far more reliable than many competing sources. On the subjects in which I am able to competently judge, Wikipedia comes out very well.

What Middlebury should be teaching its students is that no sources are reliable. Every source is unreliable to a greater or lesser degree. Every source should be checked and compared against other sources, against your own knowledge, and against common sense before one decides how much trust to give it. No source should be accepted or rejected blindly. Sadly the Middlebury history faculty seem to believe that lesson is too complicated for their students who must be protected from the brutal realities of doing real historical research.

11 Responses to “Academic Prohibitions on Wikipedia are Misguided”

  1. David Megginson Says:

    Even people who believe in authoritative sources don’t generally allow reference works as authorities: any citation of the Encyclopedia Britannica in an undergraduate essay (except as a cultural artifact) is a strong sign of a C or D paper. An obvious exception is the Oxford English Dictionary, but that’s only because it contains a convenient collection of primary evidence in the form of historical citations.

  2. John Cowan Says:

    IMHO, college students should never cite encylopedias of any kind, at all, for anything. They are meant for casual generalist use only.

    (Looks like you have a second open-blockquote tag there instead of a close-blockquote.)

  3. Doug Erickson Says:

    “If such a paper includes information I know to be false, the student is marked down for it, even if they can cite a reference for their claim.” Wow! Elliotte Rusty Harold, the preeminent authority on EVERYTHING! “Peer-reviewed?! Hogwash! Double-blind?! Bullfeathers! If Dr. Harold says it ain’t so, son, it _just ain’t so!_”

  4. Michael Champion Says:

    I agree with David and John about encyclopedias as sources in general. But even if one accepted them, there’s a case to be made for treating Wikipedia differently. While Britannica etc. are obviously not free from error or cultural bias, it is a LOT harder to vandalize a printed, edited, peer-reviewed source than it is to vandalize Wikipedia or game an online reputation-based authority. The very weakness of the print medium as a source for for up to date information can be a strength as a source for for authoritative information.

    That doesn’t mean “print == authoritative, it is to agree that properly educated people “will learn not to take any claim, in Wikipedia or elsewhere, at face value; but to consider the interests of the people who made the claim.” My point is that one has to consider not only the interests of the people making the claim but the ease with which unsupportable claims can be made in a particular source when evaluating its credibility.

  5. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    In the subjects I teach at university level–Java, XML, object oriented programming–Wikipedia is the only encyclopedia I’ve ever seen that says anything remotely relevant about them.

    And furthermore in all those subjects there is a lot of drek that doesn’t pass the smell test. Some of it is produced by the merely ignorant, others by the the actively deceptive. Some of it’s even been peer-reviewed, but most of the bad material I see cited in students papers is thinly disguised PR. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a double blind study in any of these fields.

    It’s absolutely reasonable for me to inform my students that the references they’re citing aren’t worth the paper they are (or in many cases aren’t) printed on, and grade them appropriately.

    P.S. I’m not a Dr., and I don’t play one on the Net.

  6. Daniel Lemire Says:

    “”"IMHO, college students should never cite encylopedias of any kind, at all, for anything. They are meant for casual generalist use only.”"”

    I would really like to know why an undergrad can’t cite wikipedia. Yes, you try to cite more authoritative sources. Clearly, it is better to cite this one paper published in the most prestigious journal, because you can assume that several smart people reviewed the work, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong about citing wikipedia.

  7. Anon Says:

    Wikipedia is great for research but if you find yourself wanting to cite it and you can’t just cite Wikipedia’s source for a given fact (from the references section of the article you wanted to cite), you should probably do some more research.

    Here is a fascinating letter on the subject, from one professor* to another:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Essjay/Letter

    * note: be sure to check my other link too to understand why it is fascinating.

  8. R.A. Baker Says:

    Wikipedia is not the only guilty medium

    Many good points have already been made – I simply want to reiterate with some anecdotal evidence. It should be obvious that some sources are more trustworthy than others. I am formally trained with a research Ph.D. from the University of St Andrews, but for convenience I do use Wikipedia as a quick, first step. Just last night I looked something up online concerning Josephus,then pulled down my venerable hard-bound copy to “read” the text cited. But rest assured, just because a reputable publishing company took the time/expense to print something does NOT mean that it is trustworthy. As has been stated,

    “properly educated people ‘will learn not to take any claim, in Wikipedia or elsewhere, at face value; but to consider the interests of the people who made the claim.’ My point is that one has to consider not only the interests of the people making the claim but the ease with which unsupportable claims can be made in a particular source when evaluating its credibility.”

    Everyone has an agenda, even me, and this is part of judging any/every source. I once had a journal submission rejected by a very respectable journal. As is the case with many good journals, I received some feedback as to why my article had not been accepted. I was told my article was “well written, well documented, and thoughtful,” but the reviewing scholar in my field had disagreed with my position. I was shocked. I thought that was the purpose of scholarly journals-to provide a forum for lively debate between informed scholars. I have read numerous articles in reputable journals that I did not agree with, and in fact, that I found poorly argued. Why would a well written, well documented article get rejected? A better rationale is if that particular article is presenting a old, worn out argument. This example is simply to show that agendas drive everything.

    In any event, we do need to loosen our collars with electronic media – whether we like it or not it is the direction of the future. I prefer print media, but I have found misrepresentations of primary source material (only a few times) by “scholars” in a print medium. Sadly, I believe this had been done on purpose – the accompanying commentary pointed in that direction. This would have never passed the academic scrutiny used to train me, but in both cases this was an American scholar (not that only Americans can be guilty) expressing what could be called a politically correct position. Wikipedia is not the only guilty medium.

  9. David Smith Says:

    This is, perhaps appropriately, astonishingly twisted…

    The Middlebury College news item containing the quote above first says “…while Wikipedia is fine for some background research, it is not to be used as a primary source.” This would seem to be a statement by the journalist or other writer working for the College’s public information department.

    One could hardly find fault with that position, which would be similarly applicable to any other Encyclopedia or “popular” source. The exception, of course, would be a paper reporting directly on the content of Wikipedia or another similar source, in which case that *would* be the primary source. I would hope that they would likewise not accept textbooks or other compilations as “primary sources”!

    The article then goes on to say:

    “Members of the Vermont institution’s history department voted unanimously in January to adopt the statement, which bans students from citing the open-source encyclopedia in essays and examinations.

    With the failure to close the quote in this paragraph, it is impossible to be sure whether the voice is that of the website author or the history department. In any case, if it is an accurate statement of the department’s intent, it must be thought fatally flawed, since any direct quote should be accompanied by an appropriate citation, and without banning quotes from Wikipedia entirely (rather than just as primary sources) common academic practice would demand that citations be allowed.

    Then comes what appears to be an unambiguous statement by the history department, which actually says nothing at all about Wikipedia, other than allowing that it is convenient, and that it (along, one would assume, any other source) cannot be used to “escape the consequence of errors.” I would hope that nobody at Middlebury is suggesting that other sources can be so used!

  10. The Perils of Using Wikipedia at College or University : Atmoz Says:

    [...] Academic Prohibitions on Wikipedia are Misguided Even people who believe in authoritative sources don’t generally allow reference works as authorities: any citation of the Encyclopedia Britannica in an undergraduate essay (except as a cultural artifact) is a strong sign of a C or D paper. [...]

  11. Gerald Cline Says:

    One of my favorite quotes is “…history is a series of event that never happened recorded by someone who wasn’t there to witness them….” Any cop in the world will tell you how reliable an “eyewitness report” is. An honest historian gathers his/her information from as many different sources as they can, then make and educated guess as to what actually happened. And they should always be ready to revise their views if presented with additional information. Academicians tend to come to a conclusion, and then feel they have to defend it no matter what other arguments there are about it. And the idea that a source cited from a book cannot be just as wrong as a source cited from the web (or great grandma’s memory) is ridiculous. It is a learning (and ongoing)process, and that is what needs to be taught to students in college.

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