January 20, 2016

Wikipedia turns 15 – but do academics trust this teenager?

Posted by Laura Guertin

I don’t think I need to define “Wikipedia” for this audience – but to start things off, Wikipedia defines itself as “a free-access, free-content Internet encyclopedia, supported and hosted by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Those who can access the site can edit most of its articles. Wikipedia is ranked among the ten most popular websites, and constitutes the Internet’s largest and most popular general reference work.” The beginnings of Wikipedia are detailed here by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales.

I asked my students yesterday how many of them have had a faculty member tell them they cannot use Wikipedia as a source in their class. All of my students raised their hands. I asked them why they thought they were banned from using Wikipedia for academic purposes. All of the students, pretty much in unison, said it was because Wikipedia is not a reliable source. This sentiment is echoed in the tweet below.



My students continued with some facts and observations they had made about Wikipedia – anyone can be an editor and change the content of a page, you don’t have to use your real name, not all of the information is verified or necessarily from a source, etc. I was surprised at the list they were able to brainstorm to question Wikipedia’s reliability. DNews (Discovery Communications) produced a video titled, “Is Wikipedia a Credible Source?” (*I’ve found it a good video to share with students to further explore and discuss this “sensitive” source).



Certainly, the number of edits a Wikipedia page undergoes can make one uncomfortable with the data and freedom/flexibility for edits to happen so quickly without any peer review. Elder and Erhart (2016)’s article titled “What are the most-edited articles through Wikipedia’s history?” does not include any science pages on their list…. but before you breathe a sigh of relief…


Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 9.56.07 PM

Graphic from Wilson AM, Likens GE (2015) Content Volatility of Scientific Topics in Wikipedia: A Cautionary Tale. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0134454. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0134454 (click on image, which is linked to the article)


So is this list of concerns about Wikipedia a reason to stay away… or a reason to jump in and change things for the better?



Wikipedia held a Higher Education Summit for the first time in 2011 to discuss university programs and successes with having individual students and entire courses to edit existing and author new wiki articles. In 2013, the nonprofit Wiki Education Foundation (Wiki Ed) was formed to serve as the bridge between academia and Wikipedia. There is also the Wikipedia Education Program, which has extensive resources such as copies of assignments and syllabi from faculty across all disciplines that have required Wikipedia editing assignments in their courses. And there is a WikiConference USA for those that want to learn more (2015 conference was in Washington DC, the 2016 conference is being planned for Seattle). For those that want to learn more and/or get involved, Wikipedia and its partners are providing the resources to make Wikipedia better.


Some faculty are jumping in and getting their classes to edit/improve pages, while others are at least considering looking at Wikipedia with a different lens. At a minimum, we as faculty should at least tell our students why they are not allowed to hang out with this teenager named Wikipedia, and what our reservations are instead of just telling them to “stay away.”      


Additional sources for exploration


On Wikipedia turning 15

Wikipedia15 website – https://15.wikipedia.org/index.html

Greenemeier, L. (2016, January 15). Wikipedia turns 15 [Q&A], What does the future hold for the world’s largest online encyclopedia? Scientific America (Article online)

McLemee, S. (2016, January 15). Wikipedia at 15. Inside Higher Ed (Article online)

Metz, C. (2016, January 15). At 15, Wikipedia is finally finding its way to the truth. Wired Business (Article online)

Schulenburg, F. (2016, January 14). 15 years of Wikipedia and education. Wiki Education Foundation (Article online)  

On Wikipedia and students/classrooms

Blikstad-Balas, M. (2015). “You get what you need” : A study of students’ attitudes towards using Wikipedia when doing school assignments, Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, DOI: 10.1080/00313831.2015.1066428

Cole, M. (2009). Using Wiki technology to support student engagement: Lessons from the trenches. Computers & Education, 52: 141-146. (Abstract online)

Daly, J. (2013, October 23). Wikipedia: When College Students Have an Audience, Does Their Writing Improve? EdTech Focus on Higher Education (Article online)

Garrison, G.C. (2015, October). Getting a “quick fix”: First-year college students’ use of Wikipedia. First Monday, 20(10). (Article online)

Head, A.J., & M.B. Eisenberg (2010). How today’s college students use Wikipedia for course related research. First Monday, 15(3). (Article online)

Jordán, A. (2013, December 11). Wikipedia is evil. EGU Blogs – Soil Systems Sciences (Article online)    

Lim, S. (2009). How and why do college students use Wikipedia? Journal of The American Society for Information Science and Technology, 60(11): 2189-2202. (Abstract online)

Moy, C.L., J.R. Locke, B.P. Coppola, & A.J. McNeil. (2010). Improving science education and understanding through editing Wikipedia. Journal of Chemical Education, 87(11): 1159-1162. (Abstract online)