Wikipedia as a Scholarly Resource

By User:Husky and h3m3ls, Mischa de Muynck and Niels [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Over the past couple of weeks, students in my Museum Practices graduate seminar presented their semester projects.  An Egyptology Art History graduate student, Chris Stelter, presented on the 66 short biographies he created for the renovation of the American Legacy exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum here in Memphis.  He used Wikipedia as a primary resource in the project noting that “. . . using Wikipedia as a main source has helped me make a new mental connection between the available information, what I myself, as a museum professional, want to present, and what a visitor would want to take in.  Since I am providing information for the public and Wikipedia is made by the public, it provides an interesting connection between scholarly research and public intake.”

In discussion after his presentation, Chris noted a certain trepidation at using Wikipedia for a “scholarly” project.  When asked what he would use if he were creating similar biographies for a group of Egyptologists Chris suggested the Who Was Who in Egyptology volume – arguably even less inclusive than Wikipedia.

Regardless of the specific merits in using Wikipedia to collect the Civil Rights leaders mini-bio information, which I find wholly appropriate, I found the class discussion interesting on another level.  As I reflected before in this blog, the very mention of a virtual museum or Wikipedia as a scholarly resource caused audible gasps from seminar students five years ago.  This year after Chris’ presentation the class was able to have a reasoned discussion, while still noting that Wikipedia was loathed by the vast majority of their professors.

I have posted before on Wikipedia as a research tool and specific applications in museums.  Six months down the road from those posts, the potential of Wikipedia as a research and information tool continues to grow.  A mid-year review of the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums with Wikipedia (GLAM) points to this evolving direction. Also, consider the following links:

  • Michigan Wikipedians as “The first student group of its kind in the country, Michigan Wikipedians support the use of Wikipedia on campus for purposes of education. Similar to the Open.Michigan initiative, Michigan Wikipedians foster the development of educational content that can be used globally under open licenses. The club is open to all students and faculty of the University of Michigan, as well as community members who are interested in Wikipedia.”
  • The very entry for Museums in Wikipedia is a 7000 word article with 45 “scholarly” references.  The article covers everything from the etymology of the word to virtual museums.  Were the essay written as an undergraduate honors thesis, the student would be given an A and a strong letter of recommendation.
  • This Wikipedian in Residence link lists the intent, function and experience of individuals who have taken up such assignments at a range of institutional types as essential collaborators, builders, and promoters of Wikipedia.  Scroll to the bottom of the linked page to view projects that the Wikipedians have piloted.

I was reading Debbie Morrison’s most recent post on her Online Learning Insights blog and was a bit overwhelmed when reflecting on the general reluctance of higher education to embrace these potentials, choosing instead to hunker down in their silos.  Then I got to the paragraph heading “Personal Learning Network” in Debbie’s post and it started making a good bit more sense. She wrote about the importance of personal motivation in accepting the new technology. I thought of how in 1994 while finishing my PhD I taught a course back in my hometown titled “Anthropology and the Internet” in a department of eight faculty of whom only three even had email accounts.  One faculty member that year proudly refused the computer the University had offered him choosing instead to continue typing his manuscripts on an IBM Selectric typewriter. However, when he realized he could get the daily Mexican newspapers where he did his research online, he became a convert overnight to the wonders of the digital age.  Based in part on pressure from students in that class, the next year the department had a computer lab set-up.  Can a reasoned and objective assessment of the scholarly applications of Wikipedia be far behind?

How do you use Wikipedia as a tool in your scholarly work?

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16 thoughts on “Wikipedia as a Scholarly Resource”

  1. My students are often shocked that I will “allow” them to use Wikipedia in researching projects and papers for class. It can be quite powerful, at the very least, as a “go to” for background information and bibliography.
    Thank you for sharing!

  2. When tackling a topic that I have only a little bit of background (or none at all) in, I’ll check wikipedia to see which “scholarly” sources they used to write the article. It serves as a good starting point, sometimes, though many times Google can provide many of the same results, if you know what to search for. I will admit, when I taught World Civ 1 and was tasked with compiling human history from the beginning of homo sapiens to the 1500s around the world into one little semester, wikipedia and I became great friends. Sometimes you just need to brush up on Mohenjo Daro and Eastern Han Dynasty outside of the students’ textbook!

  3. Jennifer and Katie – thanks – all very good points. What I like is less the informational text that Wikipedia provides, although it is often quite good, but the references and direction available. A case in point is the most recent rabbit hole I have gone down of trying to figure out why the Yazoo Delta town of Belzoni, Mississippi was named after Italian archaeologist/adventurer (and side-show performer) Giovanni Belzoni. So via Wikipedia, I did not find the answer, but did find an interesting biography of him by Ivor Hume that I am now reading. I would like to think that the connection has something to do with the Jaketown prehistoric archaeological site located a few miles up the road from Belzoni, but not much chance there.

  4. Having just completed an interdisciplinary PhD which crossed a whole stack of topics I knew little about initially, I found Wikipedia invaluable for the very reasons identified above. It gave me an overview, an entry and pointers. However, I did find that once I had then gone to more depth, the wiki entries varied in quality when I reviewed them. My own speciality, primary orality, has an entry which, while correct in factual content, I feel has the emphasis quite skewed.

    So I think wiki is an invaluable resource as a starting point, but I don’t think it should be quoted in academic research.

  5. I remember being struck (as an art historian) when I tutored a course with a computer engineer (long story) and he set a lot of readings from wikipedia. When I asked how he knew they were reliable he replied that they were because they were mainly written by academics who had embraced the idea of free knowledge and using wikipedia. I remember I then sat down and started editing a few wikipedia articles myself on topics close to my heart that were very conservative/wrong etc. I never really kept it up but it was a good lesson that if we are concerned about the issues with wikipedia then we can address them to some extent by getting involved.
    It also made me realise that it was much better to discuss the use of wikipedia and other similar resources with students, I’m more than happy for them to use it but it has to be done consciously, with an appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of it and they must never expect to get everything they need from there.

    1. Kat, you raise an excellent point. In fact there is a Wikipedia page on running “edit-a-thons” that promote precisely the type of involvement that you note. (See: I am working on a syllabus for a Freshman Honors Course next fall at the University of Memphis that will be called soemthing like the title of this blog post. I intend to have students identify Wikipedia pages that need the edit-a-thon process and have them do so. I also will want them to create some Wikipedia pages that can pass muster for scholarly research.

      I agree with your summary completely. As a general statement, Wikipedia now can be either a great place for introductory knowledge or a resource for resources for further investigation. At the same time some Wikipedia pages have a good bit of outdated and erroneous info (as do some textbooks and “scholarly” journals) and some are amazingly complete.

    1. I agree completely on “cracking a few books and students learning proper research methods.” I suggest that Wikipedia is increasingly becoming one of the resources that can be used in those proper research methods.

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