Wikipedia’s Roots Run Deep…

Well, maybe not Wikipedia specifically, but the idea behind it… the idea of “amateurs” working together to create a body of knowledge accessible by all.

Take a few minutes and join me as I unravel my thought process from the Making it Count presentation I attended this morning, to the Oxford English Dictionary, to Wikipedia… I promise, they are all related, and at the end, there is a point.

During the presentation today, the presenter mentioned Wikipedia and how her daughter was recently assigned a culminating project in school which required 10-12 resources… and Wikipedia would not be accepted by the teacher as a resource because anyone can contribute and edit the pages. The presenter then mentioned how important it is for us (educators) to teach students about reliable sources. I agree with her to a degree… yes, we should definitely teach students how to evaluate sources, but not to the exclusion of Wikipedia. I think Wikipedia gets a bad rap simply because it is composed, to a large degree, by “amateurs.”

To further illustrate my point – I have an extensive knowledge of the Holocaust because I have attended conferences, read many books, and studied abroad on scholarship, but I have never done anything professionally with the topic, so by definition, I am an amateur. Does this diminish my knowledge of the subject in anyway? Of course not, but to many people I suppose it diminishes my credentials. And, I do not understand this logic.

So, as I listened to the speaker I began thinking about a book I recently finished reading entitled The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The book was fascinating to me because it took me on the journey of the creation of the OED (yes, I am a little bit of a nerd). And guess what? The Oxford English Dictionary was created via a collaboration with “amateurs.”

“… Trench presented an idea, an idea that – to those ranks of conservative and frock-coated men who sat silently in the library on that dank and foggy evening – was potentially dangerous and revolutionary. But it was the idea that in the end made the whole venture possible.

The undertaking of the scheme, he said, was beyond the ability of any one man. To peruse all of English literature – and to comb the London and New York newspapers and the most literate of the magazines and journals – must be instead “the combined action of many.” It would be necessary to recruit a team – moreover, a huge one – probably comprising hundreds and hundreds of unpaid amateurs, all of them working as volunteers.” (pg. 106)

And in fact, amateurs did participate in the creation of the OED by contributing quotes from literature that helped to illustrate the meaning of the words being defined. In fact, one of the biggest contributors to the project was William Chester Minor who contributed from his cell in an insane asylum where he spent the majority of his life. Although suffering from dementia, Minor was lucid enough at moments to utilize his previous education and interest in philology and lexicography to contribute to the creation of a dictionary that is seen by many as “the definitive record of the English language.”

So, by now, I am sure you can see where I am going with this… if collaboration with amateurs was good enough for the creation of the OED, then it should be okay for Wikipedia. But you might think, “Wait… the OED had editors to check for accuracy.” That is correct, and so does Wikipedia.

I am not saying to tell your students to use Wikipedia as their definitive resource, but neither should they discredit it simply because it is comprised of entries written by “amateurs.” We are doing our students a disservice if we tell them to ignore Wikipedia and use more “reputable” sites because that is not TEACHING them how to evaluate sources for accuracy.

Are there errors in Wikipedia? I am sure there are. Are there entries that need to be elaborated and cited? Definitely. Does that mean we should scrap the whole thing and use “reputable” sources? Absolutely not. Because until we learn how to validate our sources and identify inaccuracies, we can all easily fall victim to fabrication and untruth.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Information Literacy, Oxford English Dictionary, The Professor and the Madman, Wikipedia

4 Comments on “Wikipedia’s Roots Run Deep…”

  1. Kyle Says:

    I feel that Wikipedia is a better resource than Encyclopedia Britannica or World Book because not only can one see the references the author cites, but it is possible to view the reference. The problem with print encyclopedias is that, while they offer sources for their information, the reader has a lengthy task to get to that information. Since many of the references for Wikipedia are also on-line, I can view the primary source of the entry.

    You also bring up a good point as to those classified as experts. How do people obtain such a classification? This is a club whose requirement for admission is generally acceptance by those currently members. So rather than viewing the source of the information I would have to accept the name of a person as my source. This would be fine if I knew about the person. Provided I do not I then have to accept the view point of a name where I have no connection. This might be acceptable if I had some prior knowledge of the person, but I would still prefer to see the primary source.

    Information Literacy should be a required course. Until then English teachers and Librarians will have to help ensure that students not cite “Google” as a source.

  2. Scott Says:

    I’d be interested to see if the presenter, or the teacher for that matter, would consider a privately run website to be a valid source of information. Take the Velcro Crop website, for example. The wikipedia entry for Velcro seems to be a much more valid source of information.

    I agree with Kyle. It should be about info literacy, and the ability for kids to recognize valid info on the web vs bogus info. The transparency of wikipedia, allowing people to view all the changes that have been made, in my mind makes it more valid than a lot of “traditional” websites.

  3. Dave Says:

    Ideally, every Wikipedia article is a summary of its subject. At the bottom would be citations to general references used throughout the article and links to good starting points for further information. Additionally, any points that seem possibly contentious or false would be specifically cited to their exact source. No original research would be in any article – everything in the WP article would come from somewhere else.

    In this ideal case, prohibiting citation of Wikipedia is a non-issue, since everything in the WP article can easily be found in original sources and cited to those original sources. This is a common practice already, when one academic paper mentions another paper’s findings, you should find the other paper and cite it directly. It’s not prejudice or mis-understanding of WP, it’s correct academic practice.

    Many WP articles meet this ideal case, but many do not. Luckily, prohibiting citation of WP articles is the best option in both the ideal case (original sources identified) and the less-than-ideal case (no sources given for parts of the article).

  4. thesphinx33 Says:

    Yes, I agree….you are a nerd.


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