In Defense of Wikipedia as a Research Tool

At the end of my graduate seminar this past semester, I suggested that while I did not as a whole consider Wikipedia a “scholarly” resource for citations today, it was certainly a good starting point to search out relevant references.  I proposed that five years from now, the next iteration of Wikipedia might prove to be a legitimate scholarly resource, citable in papers in the same way survey textbooks are today.

That class discussion prompted me to pull a book that had sat in my “to read” stack for the past couple of years – The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen.  His thesis is that Wikipedia, YouTube, etc. are the breeding grounds for amateurs to spread their misinformation, contrasted to the high standards of traditional professional journalism and scholarship.  I hoped the book would give an alternative to my classroom advocacy of such online venues as tools for engagement and dissemination of information. I read the Introduction and Chapter 1 and was greatly disappointed.  When I got to page 48 and read Keen’s rant against the “citizen journalist” reports from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I realized he writes from an elitist and Luddite perspective.

My interest in this discussion is from the perspective of whether such online resources are at least starting points for valid and reliable research information.    This week my Applied Archaeology and Museums class, will discuss plans for their first class project.  Students will prepare written papers on repatriation of the Elgin Marbles.  We will then have an in-class debate on the pros and cons of the Elgin Marbles repatriation.  I looked at the Wikipedia page for the Elgin Marbles.  After spending 15 minutes clicking through the various links on the page, I realized it would simply be stupid of me not to point students toward this as a first resource for the class project.  Check out the page.  I think you will agree.  The page simply is not the idiocy Mr. Keen rants against.

In a recent blog post Jennifer Carey links to a list of 15 resources for free scholarly information.  I was particularly intrigued by the Wikimedia Foundation’s project Wikiversity that is “devoted to learning resources, learning projects, and research for use in all types and styles of education from pre-school to university, including professional training and informal learning.  We invite teachers, students, and researchers to join us in creating open educational resources and collaborative learning communities.”   Sounds exactly like the nightmare Mr. Keen wrote about.

Here is what I learned about Wikiversity in 15 minutes of clicking.  Wikiversity has some well-developed modules, principally in the hard sciences. I am preparing for a special course this coming fall flowing from Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.  Through Wikiversity I found that this spring a module Political Simulations and Gaming is being created through the Department of Board Game Design  at the University of Westminster.  I will check back in a few months.  Seems a great potential resource.

The naysayers such as Keen are like the Ottoman Empire in the mid-1400s who issued a death sentence for those using the Gutenberg printing press.  (I got that info from a scholarly reference cited on a Wikipedia page.)  Wikipedia and other online user-generated resources have the same range of quality as the “professional” community.   As with the Gutenberg’s press in the 1400s, Wikipedia and other user-generated resources will continue to grow as new technologies.  In just a few years, Wikipedia has quite admirably raised the bar of their quality.  Such user-generated resources are effective tools for the types of engagement that archaeologists and museum professional strive in their outreach efforts to the broad public we serve.

Try this – go to Wikipedia and search your favorite archaeological or museum something – whether NAGPRA, Hopewell Culture, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Field Museum of Natural History . . . Then ask yourself, is this good user-generated information for the public to have ready access?  If it is, that’s great.  If not, perhaps you should use some of your own expertise to user-generate some content!

How do you use Wikipedia or other online sources in your work?

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14 thoughts on “In Defense of Wikipedia as a Research Tool”

  1. I used Wikipedia last week to find OPM’s stance on something. My friend, who works in finance, said that she never uses Wikipedia for anything federal. She then spent a lot of time looking for info from OPM’s website. When I told her several times that what I found in Wikipedia was exactly what she sent to me, she refused to acknowledge this. Wikipedia is not only a good jumping off point, but sometimes it is as authoritative as any other source. While I always caution anyone using the web as a scholarly source of information, telling them to be sure they know where the information is coming from, I don’t much worry about Wikipedia. I know they cite their sources and that they have raised the bar of their quality. I think I might just add my own expertise to Wikipedia.

  2. An interesting and important point about Wikipedia! Additionally, as the British Museum, the US National Archives, and the Archives of American Art, among others, have illustrated, having Wikipedians in Residence is also an incredible way to increase access to a museum’s/archives’/library’s collections. As you note, it’s also a great way to get a bibliography on a variety of subjects.

    That said, there is a problem when students only use Wikipedia as a source, and never go back to the original cites. It’s like writing a paper with Cliff Notes or an encyclopedia entry–not appropriate for undergrad and grad students. With the recent SOPA blackout, I can’t tell you how many students I noticed saying–how will I write my term paper with Wikipedia out? Students that don’t read any original sources (Wiki conveniently even has the cites for these students too), and seemingly don’t know or don’t care to use a digital or physical library, is a sad state of affairs.

    Wikipedia is an incredible toolbox and source of information that should be used alongside other peer-reviewed publications (though I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here).

  3. Interesting that the first two comments to the post recognize the value of Wikipedia. I was somewhat curious if the knee-jerk dismissal of Wikipedia would prevail. I am in complete agreement with both comments. The challenge today is making the transition from complete dismissal of such online resources to figuring out how to effectively use them. Importantly, we are now at the point where we can have the discussion. Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus is an excellent take off point on this discussion.

    With student research, I make a big deal that all papers are reviewed through I show students the printout generated “rates of similarity” and let them know that they must be rigorous in their citations. If they are ripping everything from a single Wiki page, that needs to be noted, and they will be graded accordingly. I am reasonably surprised at the number of graduate and undergraduate students who simply do not know proper citation procedures. I found most humorous the one undergrad who several years ago noted he had just plagiarized “a little bit” and should be excused.

    The Wikipedia discussion reminds me of a similar one I had in class several years ago on the concept of a virtual museum. Five years ago, graduates students were ready to throw tomatoes at me for even suggesting such a heretical notion. This year, we had an excellent discussion on the role of virtual museums and bricks and mortar institutions. Launching the Google Art Project was an event that seemed to really spur this discussion into the forefront.

    Thanks for your comments.

  4. I agree with you Dr. Connolly. I was skeptical of Wikipedia for a long time. However, I have changed my mind. I have used wikipedia numerous times as a jumping off point fro references on topics I may not be familiar with. I look at Wikipedia as something thats not quite where it could be in some respects, but, something that I can rely upon. I always double check facts from Wikipedia. I have found that archaeological information has some great academic references and links, especially information about sites that are well known. I see the great potential for wikipedia to expand into an extremely reliable sources for references.

  5. I am really happy that there does seem to be a lot positive response to Wikipedia as a research source. I have to completely agree.

    Wikipedia is a brilliant starting off point and I have used it as such quite successfully in the past. I have likened it to using the Oxford Classical Dictionary as a starting off point – look up your subject and it will give you the top 5 sources to start with – similar to how you mentioned Wikipedia is a great source for bibliographies.

    I also used Wikipedia recently to identify an undocumented archaeological collection in my museum’s storage. From the excavation numbers I knew it was from a Mesopotamian era site starting with the letter ‘U’. I started with the big one – and googled ‘Ur Archaeology,’ which took me directly to the Wikipedia page, where I found links to six pdf’s of Leonard Woolley’s site reports in the bibliograpgy. Less then 5 minutes later my collection was identified, easy peasy.

    Cheers 🙂

  6. Please observe Wikipedia’s article about Consumer economy:

    It is the first link that Google serves up when you search for “Consumer economy”. It is a pathetic and tiny string of words.

    Compare a short article about the consumer economy that I host on my own wiki website:

    Far more robust and helpful than the Wikipedia article. But here’s what is really interesting — you can’t get Google to list the MyWikiBiz article in its search results. I have some evidence that Wikipedians have falsely “reported” MyWikiBiz to Google as a dangerous site, so that MyWikiBiz is further deprecated against Wikipedia in search results. Furthermore, if you try to add the MyWikiBiz page as a “See also” reference on the Wikipedia article, I believe that either (a) the link will not be allowed, because it’s been placed on a “spam blacklist” by vindictive Wikipedias, or (b) the link will be allowed, but only briefly before a vindictive Wikipedia administrator comes along to remove it.

    This is a clear example of how Wikipedia creates a monoculture of mediocrity. So, the world is blessed with a shitty article about the consumer economy, while another more decent attempt at documenting that subject is forcibly buried and hidden from view.

    Good luck explaining to me how this is a “good thing” for knowledge.

    1. That’s very true, Wikipedia can be lacking, but why don’t you update the Wikipedia article then? It is a wiki, that’s the whole point.

    2. Gregory,

      In the example above I present the case of the Elgin Marbles, and I can create list after list of similar examples. So yes, I will say that is not only a “good thing” for knowledge, but an “excellent thing.”

      And you can provide list after list of examples where articles either do not exist or are substandard on Wikipedia. To fix same, as Kat notes, is the whole point behind user-generated content.

      In that spirit, you have chosen to set-up a Wiki outside of Wikipedia. That is fantastic as well and in the complete spirit of user-generated content and in complete opposition to the perspective of folks such as Andrew Keen.

      As noted on the homepage of the wiki you created:

      “MyWikiBiz has served the public as an openly-edited wiki since January 2008, facilitating an astounding 2.5 million page views since then. However, the 130,000+ pages of the wiki have grown too large to be supported by our server budget. The site keeps crashing every few weeks. At least 85% of the pages are content placeholders for link-spam, which has decimated Google’s valuation of our PageRank. We cannot go forward with this model any longer.” The page then continues about remedies to the problems.

      Your “I have some evidence that Wikipedians have falsely “reported” MyWikiBiz to Google as a dangerous site” and your “I believe that either (a) the link will not be allowed, because . . . ” smacks of conspiracy theory and as you note “a pathetic and tiny string of words” unless you provide details. My conspiracy theory supposition is especially valid when you note on your home page that your Google valuation seems to be adversely impacted by the 85% of pages “are content placeholders for link-spam”

      In sum, is Wikipedia perfect? No, not by a long shot. Is Wikipedia a good thing? I would say not just a good thing, but an excellent thing in demonstrating the possibilities of user-generated content.

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