Revision in Thinking 

These days, a college or university teacher who assigns her classes writing projects that require research might first instruct students in her Wikipedia research policy. A teacher might permit students to cite Wikipedia entries as long as they consult additional resources too, or she might prohibit the use of Wikipedia altogether, directing students to journal articles, university web projects, and other peer reviewed materials. In the latter case, a teacher might guide students away from referencing all encyclopedias, whether published on the web or as a hard copy, arguing that encyclopedias are insubstantial sources of information for college level work (see Note 1). Until recently, I shared the latter philosophy. An experience working with Wikipedia administrators to root out vandalism in one entry has led me to revise that position. I now allow students to read and to cite Wikipedia in research projects. In fact, I currently require students to read the entries related to their topics after completing their research, even if they elect not to cite the entries in their written work, and to update them, citing information that they found in their other sources.

My decision is based in part on Wikipedia’s ubiquity; a Wikipedia entry appears as one of the first links in just about any Internet search on any topic. More importantly, however, I revised my thinking because Wikipedia entries can be useful to students. The encyclopedia’s usefulness follows directly from its popularity and from the seriousness with which those who administer the site oversee and vet individual entries and provide guidance about researching with Wikipedia, citing Wikipedia, and editing text. Students in my research courses who choose to cite Wikipedia entries follow these guidelines, which can be found in the Wikipedia entries “Wikipedia: Academic Use,” “Wikipedia: Researching with Wikipedia,” and “Wikipedia: Citing Wikipedia” (see Note 2). However, students who choose not to cite Wikipedia can peruse links and references that follow individual entries or, if they read Wikipedia entries before completing any other research, they might acquire general enough overviews of their topics to begin their work. Wikipedia’s guidelines for researching with Wikipedia instruct readers to use multiple sources, not to rely on a Wikipedia entry as their sole or primary reference, since entries are forever works in progress and may be drafted by inexpert authors. As well, the guidelines direct readers to include the date, time, and article version number in their citations of Wikipedia entries, which permits readers to identify the specific revisions of entries that they consulted. For ongoing research or citation purposes, a permanent link to any entry can be accessed in the toolbox located on the left side of each Wikipedia page. I require students to edit Wikipedia entries on the topics of their research so that they can experience the encyclopedia, as I did for the first time from 24 May to 6 June 2007, as collaborating writers, rather than solely as readers looking for answers to questions or sources for a college paper.

© Carra Leah Hood