Wikipedia Storm Watch

I've been reading Alex Wright's Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages, and the following quote (page 151) struck me:

[T]he Wikipedia is stirring tensions between established interests - academic scholars and publishers - and a rising populist sentiment. While Wikipedia is unlikely to spell the demise of traditional scholarship, it serves as a telling example of the power of "books about books" to challenge existing institutional systems. The Web, like the printing press, seems poised to augur long-term social and political transformations whose effects we are only beginning to anticipate. And once again, the humble encyclopedia may prove the most revolutionary "book" of all.

I remember an exercise in my Art Librarianship class where we had to compare Wikipedia with Grove Art Online. General consensus was, Wikipedia won over time for currency and accuracy. The David of reference work hath slain the Goliath of reference, at least in this case. (And Library Journal found similar results!)

In library land, one pervasive and loud belief is "Wikipedia BAD Scholarly database GOOD." Wikipedia was like a toddler temper tantrum** - loud and omnipresent. The believed best practice for it is to ignore it, for if you ignore it long enough it will go away. Wright says this isn't the case, and I am apt to agree. Rather than simplistic arguments against it, should we just indulge it slightly, just like giving that toddler the cookie or toy they want this time, but not EVERY single time? Can we point our students to Wikipedia in certain cases (i.e. ready reference, quick overview of topics) and bring them to the holy grail of library databases when it is time to go past the simple research question? (They're doing it already, in part.) Can we teach it in our information literacy classes alongside Goliaths ProQuest and EBSCO, perhaps in lessons of evaluation and accuracy? (Here's a decent looking tutorial from Williams College on when and when not to use the site.)

The title of this post comes from the ever-present (perhaps too much for us in the Northeast) Winter Storm Watch, using Wright's thoughts to liken Wikipedia to an impending storm. I wonder if it is time to upgrade the Wikipedia Storm Watch to a Warning - or perhaps just prepare, like you would any good storm?

** I have a 2 1/2 year old niece. It was the first analogy that came to mind. But for the record, I have yet to see her throw a temper tantrum.

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We tell our students that Wikipedia is a good starting reference point for finding information, especially if they use the links to sources for the Wikipedia article or to find other search terms to use. However, we strongly caution them to not use it for the actual research.

The example we give -- from first-hand knowledge -- as to why they should not trust everything they read in Wikipedia is the actual case on our campus, where the son of one of our faculty members edited the Wikipedia article on Guam and made himself king of Guam. The error was not corrected on Wikipedia for several weeks.

I hope some unfortunate students did not use that false-fact in their social studies papers. It is possible someone from our campus reported the error to Wikipedia when they heard the "funny Wikipedia story" that was circulating.

The Alex cartoon from 4 June 2008 regarding students' uses for Wikipedia really says it all. ( -- search for Wikipedia and you'll see the cartoon)

Wikipedia has its uses and I use it quite often, but for research papers, I'd use more scholarly sources.

A friend of mine who is adjunct faculty at the Art Institute of Washington calls for "responsible Wikipedia-ing" and I am apt to agree. Good place to start, but let the library be your gateway for real research. Rather than extremes - over-reliance or Wikipedia is the Son of Satan - there needs to be balance, teaching students when it's okay to use it, and when it's not.

There are times when the information on Wikipedia is the only place that such information exists. I know of people who were in at the ground floor of computer development at places like ARM and who know every bit of technology they developed, all the people involved etc and that's just not written down properly. So they added it onto Wikipedia, they are the citation. Sometimes information just isn't available elsewhere.

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