Thursday, December 15, 2011

Wicked Wikipedia?

Wikipedia (to most librarians) is the devil. We spend hours teaching students how to evaluate information sources, how to disseminate what is worthy information apart from the gobs of goo out there on the WWW. We teach students over and over again that databases are the most reliable electronic resources for solid information, and are dismayed when some simple Googling is necessary that the first results (ugh) in a search list include Wikipedia. Ew. I have spent many hours of my life explaining why we must FLEE from this evil, Wicked Wikipedia.

Here's the deal...Wikipedia entries can be edited by anyone. ANYONE. Quickly. With fact-checking completed only by others who read and edit the article. This is dangerous. I use the example of  myself as an editor of the entry on algebraic equations as an example to illustrate the dangers of such practice. (Those who know me well will get this.) Bottom line: people who are far from experts are passing themselves off as such when they edit a Wikipedia entry. In the criteria for evaluating information, this would be called a major risk of authenticity. For me, (working with little, impressionable minds), it is not worth that risk. I want to fill their noggins with good, proven, tried and true, accurate information...not "Eh, maybe it's right."

But there's no doubt about it...Wikipedia isn't going anywhere. It is a piece of the information pie at which students are chomping away every stinkin' day; so, using this example of the To Kill a Mockingbird entry, let's consider for a moment a few ways Wikipedia can be used effectively when teaching information literacy.

  • First off, each entry is structured with a Table of Contents. That's a handy reference skill every student needs to master, most especially when utilizing digital resources. 
  • The various elements listed in the Table of Contents can be thought-provoking for students as well. This list could be of assistance to a student attempting to determine their three points for an essay on the novel. 

  •  The "See also" section in each entry provides links to other Wikipedia entries related to this particular topic. Again, though researchers should think long and hard about citing Wikipedia, the tool itself can be helpful in providing some varying or even deeper points of view regarding a particular topic or issue. 

  • The "Notes," "References," and "Bibliography" section toward the bottom is supposed to provide citations or further research for the work included in the entry (again, by various Joes from Anyplace, USA). The links quite possible could be reliable information, but then again, it is Wikipedia...who's fact-checking?

  • "External links" is most commonly where students can find the gold Wikipedia has to offer. Non-wiki links are provided here which, hopefully (but not assuredly) verify the information within the entry. Students should not cite Wikipedia, but should consider these external links as potential sources for solid information. 

  • This feature allows the article to be read to the student. This is a tool becoming fairly common on most websites, and is of great use to assisting students with exceptional learning needs or even English deficiencies. 

There you have it. What say you? Are you teaching your students to FLEE from the perils of Wicked Wikipedia, or are you allowing them to use the source within certain contexts?

For more info on the use of Wikipedia in the academic realm:


  1. I also use Wikipedia to teach my students how to locate, use and properly cite high-quality images. Wikipedia is a treasure trove for images. It helps me explain what is wrong with using Google images for academic work.

    Finally, I tell my students that it is ok to begin with Wikepedia as a way to get off the starting block with research. As with any encyclopedia, however, it is not to be cited or used as a source for notes. Background information, images and external links are Wikipedia's gold.

    Mary Kay Risi
    River Dell Middle School
    River Edge, NJ

  2. If you are going to talk about Wikipedia and librarians, you can't leave out the ALA's use, rather misuse, of Wikipedia. I have been banned from Wikipedia thanks to the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom for publishing on my own blog about the ALA's misuse of Wikipedia, and I have been told that I may not return to Wikipedia until I censor out the following:

    "ALA Pushes Net Neutrality on Wikipedia; Political and Pecuniary Interests Promoted Anonymously by ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom May Violate Ethical and Tax Codes," by Dan Kleinman, SafeLibraries, 20 December 2010.

    In summary, it's not Wikipedia that's wicked.

  3. Mary Kay, that is a fantastic way to utilize Wikipedia. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    SafeLibraries, thank you for your comment. This has been a wonderful discussion and eye-opening for many on both sides of the spectrum: those who think Wikipedia is an acceptable source for information and those who doubt all pieces of Wikipedia's credibility. I think through our discussion on the AASL forum we have learned that Wikipedia isn't wicked at long as we do our jobs in teaching responsible use.

  4. *Posting comment below on behalf of Meg Brooke.

    Since I can't respond to "comments" I'll respond here. What perfect timing! We have a class in 10 minutes on credibility in websites! Thanks for more insight on wikipedia!

    Two years ago when I was getting ready to do a class on this subject I was flipping through the mail and found our NY Times Upfront supplement which we get once a year. It had an article, The Perils of Wikipedia, which told the true story of a sociology student at the Univ. College Dublin in Ireland who did an experiment intentionally putting false info in Wikipedia about a French composer who had recently died. Amazing to him, the Associated Press used Wikipedia and published it without digging for its veracity! What a great example to be able to use for the class!

    Most of our teachers don't allow students to use it in their bibliographies as references, but we see it on MANY screens! It'll probably always be a battle for research purposes....

    On the other hand.....I do use it as a quick reference many times to just "see" what something is. If I want really good facts, though, I do go digging! :-)
    Thanks for the post!

    Meg Brooke,NBCT
    Shades Valley HS/Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School

  5. It is a beautiful post as always. Thank you so much for sharing this information.
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