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The Role of Wikipedia in Student Research

There’s a really great First Monday article in their latest edition which
covers much of the discussion about Wikipedia. More than a few blogs went wild with discussion about Wikipedia and Britannica, e al. this we too. It was all very interesting.

Anyway, this article also contains some new focus group and survey research on the issue about college students, coursework and Wikipedia that is worth reflecting upon.

How today’s college students use Wikipedia for course–related research
by Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg.
First Monday, Volume 15, Number 3 – 1 March 2010

“Findings are reported from student focus groups and a large–scale survey about how and why students (enrolled at six different U.S. colleges) use Wikipedia during the course–related research process. A majority of respondents frequently used Wikipedia for background information, but less often than they used other common resources, such as course readings and Google. Architecture, engineering, and science majors were more likely to use Wikipedia for course–related research than respondents in other majors. The findings suggest Wikipedia is used in combination with other information resources. Wikipedia meets the needs of college students because it offers a mixture of coverage, currency, convenience, and comprehensibility in a world where credibility is less of a given or an expectation from today’s students.”

I liked this chart a lot:

Figure 2: Why do students use Wikipedia for course–related research?

It just doesn’t look much different than how I used print sources in the 60’s and 70’s. Wikipedia is a good resource for framing your topic, getting language, beginning your research, and following the footnotes to other sources, print and electronic.

And if you don’t take my word for it, ask Wikipedia:

Wikipedia: Academic use

They offer the two prime directives:
1. Do your research properly. Remember that any encyclopedia is a starting point for research, not an ending point.
2. Use your judgment. Remember that all sources have to be evaluated.
3. Wikipedia links to many credible sources.

Who can argue with that?

And lastly, check out Stephen Colbert’s take on the whole thing:


Anyway, I’ve been on a number of panels with teachers and professors who ban Wikipedia (and sometimes the entire web) from their students use. (I know of some profs who won’t let students use online articles and insist that they get a print photocopy – what dinosaurs! This is especially distressing when academic libraries have the majority of their article collections in e-format and not in print nowadays.) They betray their own shallow understanding of modern research and the use of finding and contextual tools like dictionaries, encyclopedia, almanacs, indexes, etc. and do their students an extreme disservice by preparing them with skills to survive the middle of the last century. At the end of the debate though, the audiences often continue to be divided about the 21st century skills needed to thrive in the 21st century.


Posted on: March 18, 2010, 1:29 pm Category: Uncategorized