Security Musings

Security Musings

Is Wikipedia Appropriate for College Citations?

By Stephen Northcutt
CT News Update lead headline story begins[1] "Vermont'sMiddlebury College has banned the use of the online encyclopediaWikipedia as an acceptable source of academic information for students,United Press International reported."[2] According toWikipedia, Middlebury is a small, highly selective liberal arts collegelocated in the rural New England shire town of Middlebury, Vermont,United States. Drawing 2,350 undergraduates from all 50 United States,the District of Columbia and over 70 foreign countries, the Collegeparticularly is well known for the strength of its foreign language,writing, environmental, and international studies programs. Today,Middlebury consistently ranks among the top liberal arts colleges inthe nation and often is referred to as one of the Little Ivies.[3] So we started searching to find the truth and found the following on Middlebury's web site, the History Department votedunanimously in January to adopt the statement, which bans students fromciting the open-source encyclopedia in essays and examinations. WhereasWikipedia is extraordinarily convenient and, for some general purposes,extremely useful, it nonetheless suffers inevitably from inaccuraciesderiving in large measure from its unique manner of compilation, the statement reads. Studentsare responsible for the accuracy of information they provide, and theycannot point to Wikipedia or any similar source that may appear in thefuture to escape the consequences of errors.[4] Normallywe would be concerned that this is not forward looking, but then thisis the History department. But is this a good idea?

The online student weekly posted an op ed by Chandler Koglmeier thatraises some interesting points. In our country, which has always valuedinnovation and change, how can you justify censoring the flow ofinformation on our recently available platform? Secondly,democratization of information is happening. Welcome to the 21stcentury. Consumer generated content has blossomed in the past few yearsand the people have truly taken control of the information platforms(see blogs, message boards, online video content for details). Whatdoes that mean for academia? Maybe its time for a little academicre-evaluation of truth. If enough people believe it, does that make ittrue? Isn't acceptance a reality in itself?[5]

But can we call this censorship? According to Wikipedia, which isthe number one hit on Google for the word censorship. Censorship is theremoval of information from the public, or the prevention ofcirculation of information, where it is desired or felt best by somecontrolling group or body that others are not allowed to access theinformation which is being censored.[6] However,if noinformation is being removed, does this policy prevent the circulationof information? Probably not. It is certainly convenient and fast tolook things up using Wikipedia as the professors state, but if that wasthe only source of the information, it couldn't be on Wikipedia and youexpect institutions of higher learning to teach research. UsingWikipedia barely qualifies as research. Kolglmeier's second point aboutdemocratization of information is interesting. On the one hand, blogs,etc. are certainly having their moment in the sun. On the other hand,you use Google, a corporation's commercial product, to find theinformation you are looking for.

Perhaps, the following statement is the most troubling of all, Studentsare responsible for the accuracy of information they provide, and theycannot point to Wikipedia or any similar source that may appear in thefuture to escape the consequences of errors.[7] Accuracyof information and history gets complicated. Wikipedia has an excellentwriteup on historical revisionism that includes a famous quote:

History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.
- Napoleon Bonaparte.[8]

There are advantages and disadvantages to the Wikipedia approach,but at the end of the day, it is probably at least as accurate, onaverage, as anything written by a single individual that does not gothrough a peer review process. Wikipedia has an entry for thereliability of Wikipedia. A 2006 reviewof Wikipedia by, using a panel of librarians, the toughest critics of reference materials, whatever their format,[9] asked long standing reviewers to evaluate three areas of Wikipedia (popular culture, current affairs, and science), and concluded Whilethere are still reasons to proceed with caution when using a resourcethat takes pride in limited professional management, many encouragingsigns suggest that (at least for now) Wikipedia may be granted thelibrarian's seal of approval. A reviewer who decided to explore controversial historical and current events, hoping to find glaring abuses concluded I was pleased by Wikipedia's objective presentation of controversial subjects, but that, aswith much information floating around in cyberspace, a healthy degreeof skepticism and skill at winnowing fact from opinion are required.[10] Further, the point of a citation can be topermitreaders to put claims to the test by consulting earlier works. Authorsoften engage earlier work directly, explaining why they agree or differfrom earlier views.[11]

The bottom line: it would have seemed to be more optimal to simplylimit the percentage of citations Wikipedia could be used in a paper tofive percent or so. That way, students are encouraged to use all of theassets available to them, but you avoid overly "Wikied" term papers.

  1. News Update [] Feb 20, 2007
  7. See note 4 above
  11. See note 10 above