As I am spending more time in the classroom this semester during my day job as Information Literacy Librarian at the College, I am constantly dealing with the question of Wikipedia, the encyclopedia anyone can edit. As part of my starting the Information Literacy program with students, I ask them if they have been told that they can't use Wikipedia. Invariably, they say yes. Then I ask them why they think that is. Invariably, they say that it is because anyone can edit it. Because professors think it is unreliable. Because professors, wrongly they say, think it isn't worthwhile.
Students get pretty riled up about it.
The reason I don't want students to use Wikipedia is not because anyone can edit it. As a matter of fact, the more time I spend on Wikipedia, the more articles I read, the more changes I track, the more I learn about the technology, the more I believe in the democratization of information, the more I think that an encyclopedia anyone can edit is cool. Very cool.
But I still don't want students to use Wikipedia for their academic research papers. I don't want students to use any encyclopedias as a resource of an academic research paper. Encyclopedias, I tell students, are starting places. They are a great place to familiarize yourself with a topic, to identify keywords, key events, key issues, key players. But going to a summarization of a topic and its issues is not research. Why are they here? They are here to do dig deeper into what they learn in encyclopedia entries, electronic or print, edited by anyone or by the elite. You, or your parents, aren't paying all this money for you to look stuff up in an encyclopedia and call it a day.
Students are here to hone their critical thinking, writing, reading, and analytical skills. In my course on Society and Technology, we have been talking a lot about how everyday people use the internet everyday. Students have been discussing how there are many skills that we expect people to just have. Knowing how to pick which electronic resources to use is one of them. As you well know, I think there is more to it than that. I think students need to be taught to differentiate and discern what makes some sources, especially electronic ones, worth while.
Part of that process asks them to think about what their goals are for their research. What do they expect the information they need for their work (or play) to look like? What do they expect it to do? I have been doing a lot of activities with students on these questions and it has been working very well. The students buy into a list of expectations that they create. They are willing to think differently when we start talking about goal they have, rather than goals or expectations their teachers have.
Much like Kim Leeder points out in this post from the ACRLblog, a few years ago I took a different tack on Wikipedia. But it has changed and so have I. I think Wikipedia will continue to improve and continue to flourish, especially if Aaron Swartz gets his way and connects the Open Library with Wikipedia. But that's another, and forthcoming, post.
So where does Wikipedia belong in the research process: as a place to start it. But it is just that: a starting place. It does not belong on a Works Cited page. But it can surely be a useful resource in figuring out what does.