February 20, 2007

Cornell Profs Slam Use of Wikipedia

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One professor in the city and regional planning department tells her students that she will “slash” their essays if they use Wikipedia as the sole source of information. She is tired of reading research papers that are falsely cited and finding that the free Internet encyclopedia is to blame. The professor’s hostility towards Wikipedia is part of a growing sentiment among professors who are banding together against the citation of inaccurate information.

Middlebury College’s history department recently banned the use of Wikipedia as a source for research. Chairperson Don Wyatt said that the department finally came to the decision when they found that multiple students had cited wrong information from the website.

“Wikipedia is very seductive,” Wyatt told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “We are all sort of enamored of the convenience and speed of the Web. From the standpoint of access, it’s a marvelous thing. But from the standpoint of maintaining quality, it’s much less so.”

One of the primary concerns about Wikipedia is that it is openly edited — anyone can change or update entries. Though legions of so-called “Wikipedians” spend hours of volunteer time maintaining the site, even Jimmy Wales, the site’s co-founder, says that neither Wikipedia — nor any other encyclopedia — should be used as an academic source.

Prof. Aaron Sachs, history, said Wikipedia should be used with caution in research.

“I tell my students that Wikipedia is sometimes a decent option for a getting a basic overview,” he said. “But even then it takes a lot of practice to recognize when an entry might be more or less reliable.”

A December 2005 study by Nature Magazine found that Wikipedia had on average four errors per article compared to Encyclopedia Britannica’s three.
Britannica has fervently denied that Wikipedia could be anywhere near as accurate.

“It is not the case that errors creep in on an occasional basis or that a couple articles are poorly written,” Tom Panelas, Britannica’s director of corporate communications, told Nature about Wikipedia. “There are lots of articles in poor condition. They need a good editor.”

Prof. Bill Arms, computer science, who focuses on digital libraries and electronic publishing, is more enthusiastic about Wikipedia.

“In my field the entries are usually well written, accurate and up to date. In my last lecture, I explicitly suggested that the students should read a Wikipedia article. It was at least as good as lecture notes that I might have written,” Arms said.

However, he still encourages his students to use a variety of sources and cross-check them against each other.

While many professors are in an uproar, most students at Cornell tend not to quote Wikipedia as fact.

“I will use Wikipedia if I need to look up an equation or if I want to get background information before starting my research, but I wouldn’t ever cite it in a paper,” said Michael Lazar ’10.

“I love Wikipedia because there’s an entry for everything. When there’s something I just don’t know I it’s good to be able to look it up. But it really isn’t specific enough for a research paper,” said Jeff Krock ’10.
Wyatt echoed Cornell students’ view of the website.

“I happen to personally like Wikipedia,” Wyatt said. “This is not a personal stance or a hostile one. Wikipedia is a wonderful innovation, but it has its limits.”