Sunday, February 6, 2011

How to anger a Wikipedian

As many of you know, I'm an avid Wikipedian. I've been editing since 2006 and contributing well researched and educated articles for quite sometime. I'm almost about to hit my 100th article, and the majority of those have involved the Wikiproject: Public Art.

While watching Super Bowl pre-game and editing an article about a winery in Sonoma (taking a break from public art!) a colleague of mine shared this article with me:

The Top 10 Reasons Students Cannot Cite or Rely on Wikipedia by Mark E. Moran

She found this article via the professional organization the American Association for State and Local History, who posted it on their Twitter account.

Alright, maybe five or ten years ago this had some validity. Educators historically freaked out when Wikipedia came to light, claiming it was a poor source to cite. But, as many people know, that's not the point of Wikipedia. NO student should "CITE" Wikipedia in any project - Wikipedia is a starting point.

I tried to post to the articles comment section multiple times and kept getting pop up windows to share the article on Facebook every time I hit the submit button. So here is my brief and opinionated idea behind this poorly thought out article:

This article is hilarious. As an active female Wikipedian who is also a student obtaining my Masters in Museum Studies, I'm insulted by this.

Yes, there are jerks who abuse the power that Wikipedia has allowed them, but a large amount of articles are well sourced and are well maintained by good passionate well-educated people.

In my research I often use Wikipedia as a starting place. It is a requirement for articles (if they wish to not be deleted) to have well cited sources in the article page, which provides a great resource for researchers of all backgrounds and levels. The goal is to provide verified information. Wikipedia was never meant to be the number one cited source for anything, it's just a starting place, a place for you to be inspired, to explore more, and to share with the world what you've learned.

I'm also active in task forces that are seeking to expand women's contributions and studies on Wikipedia. Perhaps if you "researched" more on what Wikimedia Foundation is doing to better Wikipedia and the mission you'd think differently. There are also groups dedicated to museum coverage - why would the British Museum or the Children's Museum of Indianapolis entrust a Wikipedian-In-Residence to train their staff about how to use the website, and allow that Wikipedian to share information on selected objects with the world via the website? Obviously these well respected institutions must find something valid about what Wikipedia's doing.

Then there is the Campus Ambassadors program, which has Wikipedia working with universities such as Duke, Georgetown, George Washington University, Indiana University, and many others, to teach students and professors how to edit and utilize the website. I guess it's not trustworthy if GWU and IU are supporting it?

This way of thinking may have had some validity years ago when Wikipedia (now ten years!) first made it's appearance, but, I believe you'll be eating your words, if you aren't already.

It's equally insulting that AASLH would share this with the public. In a time when Wikipedia is celebrating it's 10th anniversary and celebrating its efforts and challenges, people still insult us with outdated articles like this.

I'm really loving the tweets from educators stating that they dock students 10% if they "cite" Wikipedia. I would too! It's like using the Encyclopedia Britannica as your source, you just don't do that. Perhaps you can educate your students on how to utilize the internet better for research, and you wouldn't be having to dock students for their research attempts.

Another colleague just stated that perhaps a clever soul should write a Top 10 on why AASLH folks should contribute to Wikipeida. In a female dominated industry you'd figure it'd be of interest - all that research, why not share it with the world?

What are your thoughts?


  1. Hi Sara,

    Lori told me about it. When I first read it I was astonished. Its seems to be written maybe 8 years ago, when all of this was beggining. Nowadays, I think this kind of approach it's quite out of place.

    Thanks you just answered in a correct way. I do completely agree with you, most % of wikipedia articles are well sourced and are well maintained by good passionate well-educated people...and the rest...are on the way.

    Wikipedia is an expanding project where it's intermediate versions are used by the community.

    Thanks for commenting it!
    Hi from Barcelona

  2. Hi Sarah, I wrote the article in question.

    In reading your commentary, I'm not surprised that you came across my article while "watching Super Bowl pre-game and editing an article about a winery in Sonoma," and managed to post it by 5:21 pm. It appears to me that you didn't actually read my article, but rather made assumptions about what you thought it must say. Never do you address anything specific in my article, but rather make broad defenses of Wikipedia that have little applicability to what I wrote - never do I write anything that could be misconstrued to mean that Wikipedia has no validity, but I do write "most of these editors are undoubtedly intelligent and passionate about enhancing the accuracy of Wikipedia."

    There is actually little disagreement between us. The context in which I created this is that I've spoken to thousands of educators in the past year who invariably complain that students' idea of Web research is to cut and paste from Wikipedia; these educators were eager for support in fighting this battle, as most of them had very little understanding of how Wikipedia was created. Indeed, once I published this, I received many reprint requests from educators, including one from the head of a doctoral program in health administration, because HIS students believe you can cite Wikipedia. To support educators in their battle to give students an informed understanding of what Wikipedia is, and isn't, I came up with this list of ten reasons you can't cite, or entirely rely on, Wikipedia. And you agree; you write "NO student should 'CITE' Wikipedia in any project - Wikipedia is a starting point." The latter part looks an awful lot like my sentence "Wikipedia can actually be a constructive tool in the classroom if understood and used correctly."

    I know what the Wikimedia Foundation is doing to TRY to diversify its contributor base - I cite that research in points 4 and 5, and attribute much of these points to the words of Sue Gardner, of the Wikimedia Foundation. I applaud your role in seeking to expand womens' contributions to Wikipedia, but these efforts don't change the present fact that 87% of Wikipedia editors are male, which came from the Wikimedia study and was noted in a story in the NY Times this week. All those universities and museums contributing to Wikipedia is terrific news; it doesn't alter the point that we both make, to quote Wikipedia, that "not all articles are of encyclopedic quality from the start: they may contain false or debatable information.” In other words, no student should cite, or entirely rely on, Wikipedia, which is the entire premise of my article.

    To round out the article, I include two guides; one created by a high school teacher, the other by NC State's library, explaining exactly what Wikipedia is and how it works. I think these are more helpful to advancing the mission of Wikipedia than your ill-considered criticism of my article.

  3. @Mark Moran:

    "To round out the article, I include two guides; […] explaining exactly what Wikipedia is and how it works. I think these are more helpful to advancing the mission of Wikipedia than your ill-considered criticism of my article."

    I agree that guides to what Wikipedia is are more productive for the mission of Wikipedia—and that's *precisely* why I disliked your article. I find your article misleading and counterproductive.

    You do address many real and pressing weaknesses of Wikipedia—and I appreciate that insofar as awareness of the problems is useful. The problem in your article is that it labels a number of things problems that are only problems if one incorrectly interprets Wikipedia's epistemic model.

    These sorts of misunderstandings are at the core of the problem of students' relationship with Wikipedia. Teachers are not adequately introducing understanding of the reasons why using Wikipedia (improperly) can be a problem, instead simply urging students to avoid the resource.

    Wikipedia is not meant to provide knowledge on its own. Real, responsible use of Wikipedia takes into account the epistemic basis of the material. On Wikipedia, this basis is *verifiability*. Wikipedia's epistemic model is not as a source, but as a *conduit* to knowledge—a conduit to sources that do, generally, pass the muster of traditional "ivory tower" mores.

    By broadcasting only messages about avoiding use of Wikipedia, an opportunity to introduce to students a greater understanding of the epistemic reasoning behind the decision is lost. The debate is *not* black and white—and even if it were, there are responsible behaviours that can make Wikipedia very academically useful *despite* the areas where it is in fact weak.

    When you criticize Wikipedia *as a source*, you are not merely damaging Wikipedia's reputation—you are propagating a false image of its epistemic model that undermines *students'* experience in investigating the reliability of sources.

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  5. Nihiltres, I agree with the spirit of your arguments about Wikipedia - but not your criticism of my article.

    According to a study published by the Wikimedia's Foundation, Wikipedia's editors are overwhelmingly young male graduate students from North America and Europe; further, the number of editors is no longer growing, and new editors and contributors get easily discouraged. All of this is a problem for a site that aims to provide the sum of human knowledge. I am not the only one who has labeled this a "problem" - the Wikimedia Foundation has labeled it a problem, is spending a lot of money to fix it, and the blog author is on a task force to seek to rectify it. If it's not a problem, why is there a task force to address it?

    You write that we broadcast "only messages about avoiding use of Wikipedia" - this is just wrong. We have published two comprehensive guides on how to use Wikipedia effectively in the classroom, and presented a third, created by a University library. Indeed, I am working on a new article that portrays anyone who bans anything, including Wikipedia, as weak; the far better approach is to teach informed usage. There are few publishers that do more to promote the responsible use of Wikipedia than we do.

    I don't criticize Wikipedia as a "source" - only its use as a SOLE source, which is how most students use it, according to the thousands of educators with whom I have spoken face to face over the past year.