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?