Reflections on Using Wikipedia

A Study
The sum of all knowledge

Does entry into the world of e-Books, Hypermedia, and Digital Publishing warrant a rethink of the use of resources such as Wikipedia and unsigned, undated websites ?

A walk down memory lane for this 60 year old techie/academic recalls that in late 1992, on a trip to Walmart to get a new calculator, as I entered the electronics section, what did I see? – but an Apple Macintosh computer being SOLD AT WALMART !!!!!  Back in those days we had a lot of money, so within a matter of days I had the new MULTIMEDIA Mac up and running. Then, lo and behold, what was this I now discovered? there was something here call INTERNET, something else, a World Wide Web (almost 2 years old at this time), and a floppy disk containing the mystery of Mac TCP!!!!` It’s hard to fathom what has happened in these last 20 years. Over the Hallowe’en weekend of that year, I placed my leather-bound copy of “Brave New World” in front of the monitor screen, mostly for the benefit of my elementary-school aged children, and uttered for the first time those soon-to-be hackneyed phrases; “Everything has changed”, “the world will never be the same again”, and “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” (quote found on the relevant Wikiquote page)

I walked into class that first week in November, erased the board, cancelled my lesson-plan, and wrote one word on the blackboard, “INTERNET”. Now. after 20 years of teaching with technology, training other faculty to do the same, using tech to do my daily academic chores, and building it into my class lessons in History and Religion, so that the students can themselves use tech efficiently and responsibly to learn, I have arrived at a new frontier of IT and scholarship. I am composing this essay in my study, surrounded on all four walls by six bookshelves tumbling over with books. I have no intention of leaving behind my old friends, leather, cardboard, or paper-bound, as I continue my scholarly work. Yet, shoved into the midst of this temple to print, is my latest Apple Macintosh computer, now fully integrated with the blogs, wikis, and tweets of 2012 information technology. As I use these resources to research and publish my work on the history and culture of 1718-50 New Orleans, I intend to fully exploit this hyperlinked universe of knowledge. So, I repeat the question;

Does entry into the world of e-Books, Hypermedia, and Digital Publishing warrant a rethink of the use of resources such as Wikipedia and unsigned, undated websites ?

The answer is YES.

Like it or not, Wikipedia has become a force in research. this essay will maintain what I’ve always told my students about doing research. Wikipedia and the web in general are public space, and like all public space there are considerations of safety and just plain common sense that come into play. In terms of academic work, Wikipedia and other encyclopedias are good places to start. They are best used for “quick and dirty” facts and figures.

But, rather than re-invent the wheel, I will use hypermedia to make my case: Wikipedia itself clearly advises, “Wikipedia is not considered a credible source”. And then recommends . . .

  • An encyclopedia is great for getting a general understanding of a subject before you dive into it. But then you do have to dive into your subject; using books and articles and other appropriate sources will provide better research. Research from these sources will be more detailed, more precise, more carefully reasoned, and (in most cases) more broadly peer reviewed than the summary you found in an encyclopedia. These will be the sources you cite in your paper.. There is no need to cite Wikipedia in this case.
  • An encyclopedia is great for checking general knowledge that you have forgotten, like the starting date of the First World War or the boiling point of mercury. Citation is not needed for fact checking general knowledge.
  • Some details, such as the population of Canada, can be found on Wikipedia, but it is best to verify the information using an authoritative source, such as the CIA World Factbook.
  • A very obscure detail, such as the names of the founders of the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, might be very hard to find without the aid of an encyclopedia like Wikipedia. Wikipedia is ideal in these situations because it will allow you to find the information, as well as sources which you can research to confirm that information. In any case, you should not cite Wikipedia itself, but the source provided; you should certainly look up the source yourself before citing it. If there is no source cited, consider a different method of obtaining this information

Although, it is a bit dated, in 2006 Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, says he wants to get the message out to college students that they shouldn’t use it for class projects or serious research. Speaking at a conference at the University of Pennsylvania called “The Hyperlinked Society,“, he clearly states, ““For God sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia.”

So, as in most things, common sense should be our guide and mentor in such matters. I will continue to use Wikipedia and other unsubstantiated digital sources (for that, in large part, is the nature of the beast) in the preparation of my history of 1718 New Orleans as well as my 1718 Cookbook. But, be sure to consult the bibliographies of both works to check the validation of those same facts, figures, and concepts that are brought forth by these scholarly endeavors.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s