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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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Wikipedia Receives a Citation

Middlebury College is now informing students that Wikipedia is not appropriate for research, and that they use it at their own academic peril. Somewhat surprisingly, Wikipedia doesn’t necessarily disagree with them.

Inside Higher Ed has a fascinating review of Middlebury College’s recent decision to bar students from citing the online encyclopedia Wikipedia in their research. While students can still access the site, they are no longer allowed to cite it specifically.

While plenty of professors have complained about the lack of accuracy or completeness of entries, and some have discouraged or tried to bar students from using it, the history department at Middlebury College is trying to take a stronger, collective stand. It voted this month to bar students from citing the Web site as a source in papers or other academic work. All faculty members will be telling students about the policy and explaining why material on Wikipedia - while convenient - may not be trustworthy.

“As educators, we are in the business of reducing the dissemination of misinformation,” said Don Wyatt, chair of the department. “Even though Wikipedia may have some value, particularly from the value of leading students to citable sources, it is not itself an appropriate source for citation,” he said….

There was some discussion in the department of trying to ban students from using Wikipedia, but Wyatt said that didn’t seem appropriate. Many Wikipedia entries have good bibliographies, Wyatt said. And any absolute ban would just be ignored. “There’s the issue of freedom of access,” he said. “And I’m not in the business of promulgating unenforceable edicts.”

In the interview, Wyatt went on to say that he doubted students’ papers would be rejected for a single Wikipedia citation, but noted that repeated violations of the new policy could lead to academic disciplinary action. “The important point that we wish to communicate to all students taking courses and submitting work in our department in the future is that they cite Wikipedia at their peril,” he said.

Interestingly, a representative from Wikipedia didn’t exactly dispute the college’s new rules. “That’s a sensible policy,” said Wikipedia’s Sandra Ordonez “Wikipedia is the ideal place to start your research and get a global picture of a topic, however, it is not an authoritative source. In fact, we recommend that students check the facts they find in Wikipedia against other sources. Additionally, it is generally good research practice to cite an original source when writing a paper, or completing an exam. It’s usually not advisable, particularly at the university level, to cite an encyclopedia.”

The root of the debate, of course, is the role that online sources should or shouldn’t play in student research. Wikipedia is just the most famous example of countless online reference tools, from About.com to Answers.com. Is one source better than the other? In some ways, it’s a trick question, since many online reference sites have an incestuous relationship when it comes to aggregating and disseminating information. For example, Wikipedia allows any person or entity to copy it lock, stock and barrel, and reprint it elsewhere.

For example, a while back I wrote a brief Wikipedia entry, or “stub,” for Ksar Ouled Soltane, an historic Berber granary I visited in Tunisia. Since I am neither an expert in Berber history nor architecture, I kept the entry very short, hoping that people with access to better primary source materials than I would help fill in the blanks. So far, that hasn’t really happened, but that hasn’t stopped other sites, including Answers.com and AllExperts.com, from copying what I wrote in Wikipedia verbatim. Theoretically, an unobservant (or lazy) student researcher might use all three sites as separate references, even though they’re copies of each other. Over time, the copies might even appear somewhat different, since Wikipedia’s version gets updated more often than the others, creating discrepancies in their texts. This might cause other student researchers who are trying to be more sincerely observant from treating them all individual sources, rather than mere copies of each other.

One might easily define the problem as simply being a gripe with online references, thus suggesting Middlebury would want to expand its ban on other Internet sites. The bigger issue, though, is ensuring that students don’t take shortcuts with research, whether it’s online or offline. “College students should’’t be citing encyclopedias in their papers,” said Roy Rosenzweig of George Mason University in the article. “That’s not what college is about. They either should be using primary sources or serious secondary sources.”

Readers of the article have responded in kind. For example, David Blakesly wrote:

Kudos to Roy Rosenzweig for rightly pointing out that the core of the problem is not Wikipedia and the quality or integrity of its information. It’s that we haven’t successfully communicated to students that citing any general knowledge encyclopedia-including Britannica-in college-level research is a mistake. Blaming Wikipedia is a red herring. I wish as much attention were devoted to the challenge of teaching effective research practices, including the dubious practice of prescriptions like this one.

Dominic Moore agreed:

Wikipedia is not at issue here. The issues are the ignorant students who think they can cite tertiary sources in an academic paper and the professors who let them get away with it. Why is this even an article about Wikipedia? Citing “World Book” would be twice as bad.

For better or for worse, Wikipedia is the lightning rod for many public debates over the merit of student online research. Middlebury is right to discourage students from citing Wikipedia as a source while not banning it outright, since it can serve as an excellent launching point for tracking down primary and secondary sources. K-12 schools would be wise to follow this story to see how it plays out, since they’re not taking a black and white approach towards Web 2.0 that has plagued some policy debates. Still, the college’s decision raises larger questions about the role of other online reference tools that face similar limitations, yet don’t get the spotlight.

Meanwhile, I’d love to see Middlebury or another academic institution balance policies such as this with active encouragement of students and professors to contribute to Wikipedia. Given all the time and effort spent conducting research, some of that energy could also be used to improve the quality of Wikipedia entries, particular in terms of improving citations. Despite its flaws, Wikipedia is still one of the most used reference tools in human history, so improving its overall quality is in the interest of all of us. -andy

Filed under : Policy, Research


Wikipedia’s primary weaknesses are its lack of authority and accuracy. As Andy pointed out, he submitted an entry on a topic on which he is not an expert. Not bad in and of itself, but students who are not discerning can get into trouble when faced with other Wikipedia articles lacking authority and accuracy.

I agree with Dominic that college students who aren’t using primary and strong secondary sources are (at best) fooling themselves. But lumping Wikipedia with World Book is not quite the thing. Encyclopedias, such as World Book and Britannica, use writers and contributors with authority and accurate sources to produce their articles. With Wikipedia you may get authority and accuracy, but you can never really be sure. Unless you do the citation chasing that you may be trying to avoid by citing Wikipedia in the first place.

I’m a teacher and have been for many years before Wikipedia (B.W.).

I have never allowed my students to use Encyclopedias because they are the “easy answer” and don’t require critical evaluation of research material. Sure, the answer is (usually) correct when you use World Book or Encarta, but the purpose of assigning research is not always to find the answer quickly ;-)

One hint I give my students: well written Wikipedia entries include two things: References and External Links. Often- these lead to excellent resources, or at least an authoritative source.

I don’t think I would go so far as to ban students from citing Wikipedia; however, I think it is imperative to teach them that this is not the only source they should access and cite. If we are teaching good information management and researching then students should know to include more than one type of source. Wikipedia has great entries with links to other sources (some primary and secondary), so I think Wikipedia can be a great place to begin research, but students need to realize that they are expected to delve deeper than Wikipedia alone.

Wikipedia is just another encyclopaedia. It’s a tertiary information source, and as such not a valid citation source for academic papers. This, I guess, was said towards the end of the article, although I would have liked to see it in the beginning, as that was the main point.

A comment to Julie: What makes a printed encyclopaedia inherently better than Wikipedia? Because it’s backed by a publisher? Or because it’s written by experts? My experience with all encyclopaedias is that you cannot see which “expert” has written which entry. Also there usually is no meta level discussion about the relative certainties of statements made.

As we all know, even the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica used to claim that negros were inherently inferior to white people. And any politically disputed topic is always depicted differently on the encyclopedias and history books on different sides of a national border. Everyone has an agenda when writing something (even me, right now). It behooves students to learn to look for that agenda and to be critical. Taking any written text as god’s truth is irresponsible and dangerous.

To conclude: Even with World Book or any other printed, published, and established information source, you can never be sure. Wikipedia makes it more apparent that you cannot be sure, traditional books usually try to hide this and present everything as absolute truths. Learning this is perhaps the single most important thing any student should learn.

Sounds like a smart idea.

To me, it seems rather gratuitous to ban Wikipedia since consensus opinion is that doubt most faculty do not accept an encyclopedia citation as a reference in a student paper. Are they going to ban comic book versions of history next?

What IS interesting is a student’s editorial response:

“Are you really arrogant enough to say that the opinions of the general public, albeit a general public who cares enough to get on wikipedia and post about a specific topic, don’t matter? To me, this stinks of the beginnings of censorship. According to Wikipedia, Censorship is the removal of information from the public, or the prevention of circulation of information, where it is desired or felt best by some controlling group or body. While this has not reached that stage, it could approach it quickly. I always thought the point of academia was that there was no censorship. Ideas, no matter how crazy, were embraced and allowed to circulate. Isn’t that one of the reasons we grant tenure to our beloved professors?”
My second professor-related comment involves Professor Waters’ statement that “It’s really a product of the way the information is compiled. The articles can improve over time, but there’s always an [emphasis on] change rather than something finalized.” I wasn’t aware that knowledge was a static thing. If that is the case, then why do I keep learning or writing new ideas?

I think this student’s perspective may indicate a generational shift in the understanding of authority of ideas. I have written about this tension before, referring to Mark Federman’s conclusion that we are at the transition point out of the literate age — literate as in credentialed of knowledge. There is an emerging generation that is used to self-publishing, sharing ideas online, editing wiki pages. It has grown up awash in advertising seductions and political spin. Who can blame them if they doubt established authority?

This may be an early salvo in new culture war on traditional campuses. 

I find this discussion fascinating. As a researcher and a teacher, I have always been befuddled by bans against encyclopediae and other tertiary sources in research.

I think sometimes that too many “sophisticated” educators forget the meaning and purpose of research. One may not want students to rely on tertiary sources, but we need to recall the confusion that can accompany approaching a subject for the first time. Basic sources can be indispensable, if only to relieve the sense of knowing nothing, by offering an overview and an outline of a subject.

We need to teach students how to question, how to access information, how to judge the accuracy of information, and how to report all of that. When students don’t understand one or more of those steps, at any level of learning, we’re foolish to blame them. We need to reteach, with better documentation and examples. We waste everybody’s energy saying people should know better.

In my experience, when student’s discover the pleasure of tapping into primary and secondary sources, they don’t stop using lesser resources. They simply use them quickly, without reporting that they did, and move on to deeper research. Why not? It’s their facility and depth with materials that really matters.

Bridget Morton
Writer, Teacher, Independent Scholar

To whom this may concern,

I don’t have the time to post a comprehensive response to this article, which is what I would very much like to do. Nonetheless, while reading this article by Andy Carvin from a PBS RSS feed, I wanted to, at the very least - post a response. As a Pre-MED student in my 3rd year, I found Wikipedia.org an indespensible resource in my research, studying not only medical related sources, but also other academic related sources. Additionally, I made use of my campus online library research tools, as well as, use of other resources, such as the academic scholar search tools made available on Google.com

I found Wikipedia.org to be articulate and genuinely well-represented with research articles properlly researched and cited, with extensive reference resources.

Thank you for allowing comments to this article. I enjoy reading these and many other articles provided online and highlighted through RSS feeds.


Mr. Michael Simpson, Student
Augusta State University

Michael, I think you’re fortunate that you’re in a field that’s been well documented by wikipedians. Certain disciplines have a critical mass of wikipedians covering them, so the articles can be excellent. Many other academic disciplines, though, have gaping holes on wikipedia, so I would warn against assuming that quality is consistent.

Did any of your professors let you cite wikipedia as a source, though? As I said in my piece, it’s a wonderful launching pad for resource. But as an end point, it shares the same weakness that other encyclopedias have, since they’re simply not the same as primary source materials.

Here at my college we are facing the same problem that is described. Teachers aren’t allowing us students to use Wikipedia as a primary/secondary source. I actually agree with this because there are articles on that site that are just silly. To prove this silliness people at my old high school posted an article on a game played at school called Wall ball. You can look it up yourself. That, I think, aren’t creditable sources. I personally do use Wikipedia, though, but only to get an idea of what my topic is or whatever I am researching. Then I head to the library to do some actual researching.

Julie said: “But lumping Wikipedia with World Book is not quite the thing. Encyclopedias, such as World Book and Britannica, use writers and contributors with authority and accurate sources to produce their articles. With Wikipedia you may get authority and accuracy, but you can never really be sure.” But I’m supposed to be sure with the people from World Book because of their authoritative knowledge? I am much more confident reading the Wikidpedia article on let’s say punk rock or the Ramones then I would be getting it from some hired gun from World Book. At least with Wikipedia I know there is more than one or two blokes contributing to the article, and the fact that I can look back and trace the history makes it all the more definitive.

But as Andy said, “improving its overall quality” would definitely be a plus. I can’t remember the last time I opened a World Book.

I strongly agree with this article. I actually think that wikipedia should be removed so no one wouldn’t have any more problems with the website.

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