Wikipedia banned from Universities

June 17th, 2007

An article in the Vallejo Times Hearald, Wikipedia banned from UCSC class sounds very alarming, but it turns out not to be so bad. Maybe even reasonable.

“SANTA CRUZ – UC Santa Cruz professor Dan Wirls adopted a policy banning students in his American government class from citing Wikipedia in research papers. It’s not that the collaborative online encyclopedia is bad or wrong – though inaccurate information is always a risk, says Wirls and other UCSC faculty who are noticing a growing number of students using Wikipedia. The main gripe from Wirls, chairman of the politics department, is that students “are entering college with almost no research skills beyond their rudimentary use of the Internet. “They do not know how to use a library,” he said.

The article notes that Middlebury College’s history department was the first known department to ban Wikipedia citations when it did so this past February. Wikipedia’s position on this is supportive:

“Wikipedia is the ideal place to start your research and get a global picture of a topic. However, it is not an authoritative source,” said Sandra Ordonez, a Wikipedia spokeswoman. “We recommend that students check the facts they find in Wikipedia against other sources. It’s usually not advisable, particularly at the university level, to cite an encyclopedia.”

The larger problem here is the Web is the first place that most of us turn to when looking for information. For an increasingly large set of topics, a Wikipedia article is not only one of the first few results returned by a search engine, it’s also one of the best, at least for a reasonably objective, concise and trustworthy overview. Tracking down information to a primary source is difficult, requiring skill, experience and time. More often than not, the primary source may require considerable background knowledge to be able to read and understand. It’s hard work!