January 14, 2011
Trust but Verify and Do Not Cite: Wikipedia Turns 10 on January 15th
Tomorrow is Wikipedia's 10th anniversary. It is the fifth most popular website in the world and may be coming of age as a "pre-research" tool. Casper Grathwohl, vice president and publisher of digital and reference content for Oxford University Press, writes in The Chronicle:
The rapid evolution of Wikipedia in relation to academic research demonstrates that phenomenon. Not long ago, publishers like myself would groan when someone talked about how Wikipedia was effectively replacing reference publishing, especially for students. But my perspective has changed. As Wikipedia has grown, it has become increasingly clear that it functions as a necessary layer in the Internet knowledge system, a layer that was not needed in the analog age. A study carried out by Alison Head and Michael Eisenberg, published in a March 2010 edition of the Web journal First Monday, surveyed university students about their research habits and, in particular, how they begin research projects. Most of the nearly 2,500 students who responded said they consult Wikipedia, but when questioned more deeply, it became clear that they use it for, as one student put it, "pre-research." In other words, to gain context on a topic, to orient themselves, students start with Wikipedia.
That makes perfect sense. Through user-generated efforts, Wikipedia is comprehensive, current, and far and away the most trustworthy Web resource of its kind. It is not the bottom layer of authority, nor the top, but in fact the highest layer without formal vetting. In this unique role, it therefore serves as an ideal bridge between the validated and unvalidated Web.
My opinion of Wikipedia, like the tool itself, has radically evolved over time. Not only am I now supportive of Wikipedia, but I feel that it can play a vital role in formal educational settings—something that five years ago I never would have imagined saying. To go further, while I do agree that teaching information literacy is important, I do not agree with those who argue that the core challenge is to educate students and researchers about how to use Wikipedia. As we have seen, students intuitively understand much of that already.
The key challenge for the scholarly community, in which I include academic publishers such as Oxford University Press, is to work actively with Wikipedia to strengthen its role in "pre-research." We need to build stronger links from its entries to more advanced resources that have been created and maintained by the academy.