Wikipedia and Academia

Posted on February 17, 2013

The wonderful global encyclopedia that students love and academics hate. From a young age the new generation of students have grown up in an environment where if they don’t know something, the first port of call is immediately Google and then almost inevitably a Wikipedia article. I can still remember the first time I had access to a computer being not until I was nearly in secondary school, and even then it certainly wasn’t used for much in the way of internet research (much more in the way of online pacman or tetris or the occasional game of pong). We still relied on good old fashioned books and libraries for our research until I was well into college.

The modern undergraduate starting in 2012/13, have grown up with the internet around them from a very early age. A huge worldwide repository of information at your fingertips. Why use a textbook when google is right there? I still feel plenty of nostalgia and prefer to read things in hard copy but I cannot condemn this new way of working as it offers a world of opportunity that until the last decade was unattainable: unlimited learning!

Every undergraduate will almost certainly have that terrifying lecture where they are scared witless about plagiarism and told that the use of ‘proper’ sources and referencing is essential. Almost every time I have heard this ‘little talk’ I have always heard Wikipedia mentionned. It’s unreliable, it’s not well researched… Quite often academics are right. Yet I can tell you with a certainty that everytime a student comes across a concept they don’t understand their first port of call will still be Wikipedia.

Wikipedia itself was set up as a revolution to bring free unhindered reference to the world through online collaboration. It certainly has it’s faults and as one would expect on an open access platform is vulnerable to sabotage and misinformation. Yet why knock it? It’s world renowed, it has a huge profile and usage, and as far as I can see the only way to make it better is for academics to get behind it rather than block it. I would even say they have a societal responsibility to do so.

Do not misunderstand me, I am not saying that academic practice, correct referencing and the reliability of sources should go out the window, and the chinese whisper practice should be advocated to first year undergraduates with immediate effect. Teaching them how to make use of Wikipedia articles as an initial point of entry to a subject and how to check the sources used are reliable is probably not a bad idea though, as frankly they are going to use it anyway.

More importanly though, the more academics that contribute to Wikipedia and assist on articles within their sphere of expertise, adding detailed referencing and using reliable sources; the better it will be for academia, students and society at large.

What if Universities made it a part of CPD for academic staff? The Open University has recently begun making moves to make Higher Education in their institution open source and only charging for accreditation and examination. A noble and potentially incredible opportunity for people to learn for free. If this principle was more widely integrated into academic values it could lead to more reliable reference available online, in an easy to access format. Why not turn this flawed model into something credible that could lead a societal revolution? Where people can learn and read, just because they want to – and all for free!