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« First Two Laws of Commons-Based Peer Production | Main | Matt Locke on folksonomies »

February 28, 2005

Who's afraid of Wikipedia?

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Posted by Clay Shirky

danah said, in Academia and Wikipedia, “All the same, i roll my eyes whenever students submit papers with Wikipedia as a citation.”

I didn’t comment on this at the time, but grading papers over the weekend, I had a student cite the Wikipedia for the first time, referencing its entry on the OSI Reference Model. Seeing it in the footnotes, I wondered what the fuss was about. The Wikipedia article is a perfectly good overview of the Reference Model, and students should document, to the extent they are able, the sources of their research. When they have learned something from the Wikipedia, in it goes; to exclude it would in fact be dishonest.

Curiously, the Wikipedia reference came in the same week that another student was referring to Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, an essay that is tremendously influential and, in a bunch of non-trivial ways, wrong about the inherent politicization of reproducible art, and especially of film. I’m much more worried about students overestimating the value of the Benjamin essay, because of its patina of authority, than I am about them overestimating the value of the Wikipedia as a source for explaining the 7-layer networking model.

And I assume I am hardly alone in the academy. Hundreds, if not thousands of us must be getting papers this year with Wikipedia URLs in the footnotes, and despite the moral panic, the Wikipedia is a fine resource on a large number of subjects, and can and should be cited in those cases. There are articles, as danah has pointed out, where it would be far better to go to the primary sources, but that would be as true were a student to cite any encyclopedia. If someone cited the Wikipedia to discuss Benjamin’s work, I’d send them back to the trenches, but I would also do that if they cited Encyclopedia Britannica.

To borrow some Hemingway, this is how the academy will get used to Wikipedia — slowly, then all at once.

Comments (10) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. Bud Gibson on February 28, 2005 7:17 AM writes...

We actually use Wikipedia as a source for students in our intro to IS course at U of Michigan. Basically, it usually does a pretty good job of representing the common understanding of technical topics in cases where you need a quick definition.

Sometimes, it really pays to bring your academic notions in touch with where your audience is coming from. Truth be told, the common understanding is often what defines the topic. Accepting that common understanding and working with it is a good reality check for people in the academy.

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2. David Sabel on February 28, 2005 7:27 AM writes...

We liked the Wikipedia so much as a reference source on music history that we integrated it into our site -

Granted, there is nothing particularly *academic* going on when a user reads a Wikipedia article at our site, but nonetheless the articles about bands, albums and songs are surprisingly detailed and accurate - and constantly improving.

My guess is, whatever the topic, when there are passionate "fans" engaged in documenting their passion, you'll get "citation-worthy" content.

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3. Larry Sanger on February 28, 2005 8:46 AM writes...

Clay, having seen your writings about Wikipedia, I think you have a religious faith in the superiority of Wikipedia's particular system and culture that I do not share.

I always recommend that my students not use Wikipedia as a source for philosophy papers, and I co-founded Wikipedia. The articles in that field just aren't good enough yet, as a whole. Their level of quality might change; but what will make it much more likely to change is the involvement of more actual philosophers.

There is a good reason why the "OSI Reference Model" article might be usable: it's a techie topic. Wikipedia's content development community is dominated by techies (it wasn't always), and that is why it's good.

Think creatively: there are many other and better ways to do what Wikipedia does, i.e., write an open content, collaborative encyclopedia. There is nothing magical about how Wikipedia does things; it is just one system. I have every confidence that another system will arise, probably quite soon, that will blow Wikipedia out of the water, in terms of quality, while being equally productive and nearly as open; and that project is the one that academics will become happy to let their students cite, "all at once."

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4. Daniel Varga on February 28, 2005 2:47 PM writes...

I don't know whether students should cite Wikipedia or not. But if they do cite it, they should definitely cite with the timestamp included, something like:
instead of

(I'm not sure my example shows the best syntax. I couldn't find the 'permalink' on Wikipedia pages. Is there such?)

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5. Dan Smith on February 28, 2005 5:35 PM writes...

Permalinks are currently possible only with old revisions of an artcle; however, in the next version of the software (1.5) it will be possible to permalink to the current revision - or, more accurately, to whatever version is current at the time you link to it.

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6. greglas on February 28, 2005 10:19 PM writes...

I've cited Wikipedia in published articles and assigned readings from Wikipedia in courses on tangential subjects (e.g. to give students a basic overview of steganography), so I guess I'm close to Clay's position.

I'm cognizant of the nature of the source, and the issues Wikipedia raises as "authority", but if I had a student cite to Wikipedia, I'd be more interested in looking for problems with the truth of the assertions rather than looking for problems with the source. I think most students know what Wikipedia is and what it is not.

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7. Brian on March 1, 2005 12:59 AM writes...

the involvement of more actual philosophers.

freudian slip?

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8. James Governor on March 1, 2005 8:19 AM writes...

Benjamin's "patina of authority" - there was me thinking students liked citing a guy that wrote an essay called Hashish in Marseilles....

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9. James Day on March 7, 2005 6:17 AM writes...

A tip for any students who read this: if you want to really impress your professor, go for the original sources. I did extremely well in a research project some years ago because I took the trouble to walk 30 minutes to the British equivalent of the Library of Congress and do exactly that. Wikipedia is good. It's not everything.

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10. nsh on March 7, 2005 11:13 PM writes...

Nice article, kudos to the author. Just a few things that spring to mind: (a) Wikipedia's quality is not measured on a whole but per article. It is due to the massively decentralised nature of wikipedia that we don't and wouldn't want to ensure that all articles are of similar quality, though we do have a system to mark that an article has surpassed a certain threshold (featuring). So judge the article, not the source (as ought to be common sense to any serious academic). (b) A question to Larry: If you think Wikipedia's articles on philosophy are bare, and would be improved by contribution from "real" philosophers, if such a notion can be held, why don't you help out yourself? Wikipedia is only every as good as a function of the sum of its users. To put it in terms of Wiki parlance: something's broken? {{sofixit}}!

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