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Wikipedic Knowledge

posted: 4.30.12 by archived

A very long time ago, in one of my first BITS blogs, I wrote about “Steering Around Wikipedia, Instead of Steering Clear.”

I suggested that, generally, if we don’t tell students to avoid Wikipedia as a research source, this is the first place they will go.  And they may gather research that is much too general, or that is not reliable.  Worse, they might plagiarize directly from Wikipedia, or write an essay that sounds like one long paraphrase of a Wikipedia article.  One way to address this is to lie down right in the lion’s den—to actually start research with Wikipedia.

I want to return to this argument and update it a little with a few more resources.  What I am outlining here might even become a lesson plan for a single class.

First off, we can show students that a Wikipedia entry is itself a remix, a remix of all of the general knowledge about an issue.  But each Wikipedia article also includes all of the material that has been used to make this remix.  For instance, at the bottom of most lengthy Wikipedia entries, you can find a list of “Notes and References” and resources for “Further Reading.”  Students can sort through these references and divide them according to their assumed reliability and authority, and you can help them see that some sources are more useful and acceptable than others—and you can show them why.  Many “Notes and References” and resources for “Further Reading” lead students directly to very reliable full-print texts that they can access to jump-start their own research.

Alan Liu at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has collaboratively developed a student policy for the use of Wikipedia that speaks to and expands some of these ideas.

Secondly, we can look more deeply into the scholarly work that goes into building Wikipedia.  John Broughton has written an entire manual for posting and editing on Wikipedia.  Nicholson Baker’s very entertaining review of this manual in the New York Review of Books would make for excellent class reading – it details the history of Wikipedia, and the ways that Baker himself has tried to make his mark on the site.

In Baker’s article, he references several studies of Wikipedia, including a University of Minnesota study that examines exactly where most of the knowledge on Wikipedia comes from. Another study by the same team reveals gender biases. A Nature article also compares the reliability of Wikipedia alongside the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. This research can offer really illuminating new angles on the authority of Wikipedia.

Beyond this, we might consider discussing the relatively new phenomenon of Wikipediaeditathons.”  These “parties” give groups an opportunity to add to or create Wikipedia entries concerning their shared locales, hobbies, or areas of expertise.  For instance, the New York Public Library has been holding parties where attendees add to and edit the Wikipedia entries on various New York City neighborhoods.  These parties are particularly interesting, because they both provide access to “old” forms of archival knowledge held at the library, and provide the opportunity to make this information more accessible online through Wikipedia.  The editathons also focus on the “rules” or best practices for editing on Wikipedia – so there is a particular pedagogical angle, too.  Other groups are actively working together to add more women’s history to the Wikipedia, or to add articles on the performing arts.  I plan to hold a Wikipedia editathon in my own first-year writing class next Fall.


Categories: Jay Dolmage, Research
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