The great search engine that could

Examining the co-existence of Wikipedia’s vast archives of knowledge and the research requirements of academia

Wikipedia was launched in 2001 and quickly became the fifth most-visited website worldwide.
Wikipedia was launched in 2001 and quickly became the fifth most-visited website worldwide.

It’s a multilingual, ever-expanding fountain of knowledge, able to spout the biography of Mrs. Ari Gold, the manifesto of the People’s Union of Estonia and the complete discography of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Dubbed “the free encyclopedia,” Wikipedia has become the seminal go-to source for curious Internet surfers looking for a quick answer since its launch in January 2001. It’s omniscient—almost.

When it comes to the classroom, Wikipedia’s relationship with academia has been undermined by educators questioning its academic validity.

Rahul Kumar, a professor in the philosophy department, said Wikipedia is more about what people do on their spare time.

“I suppose it’s useful for general information, more so than in a more academic context,” Kumar said. “I’ll give you an example of how Wikipedia can be useful: someone once told me at a dinner party that the White House was not originally white. So I went home and I went on Wikipedia and I found out that that is just not true. That’s the kind of thing people use Wikipedia for.” Kumar said although he wouldn’t necessarily classify Wikipedia as a valid academic source, the website does house two very different kinds of information.

“There’s the type you would be curious to find after a dinner party and there’s the kind you use for a paper and while I may use it for the former sense, I wouldn’t use it for the latter,” he said. “If a student used Wikipedia in a bibliography for their essay, I wouldn’t necessarily discount it right away, but I would definitely ask questions, like whether they used other, more academic sources, or in what content they did use Wikipedia.” Professor Steven Leighton, also of the philosophy department, said Wikipedia has great potential as an academic resource, but it shouldn’t be used as a primary source of information.

“I have looked at philosophical articles and some are very good—so I supposed they’re working towards their goal,” he said. “But where they are is not for me to say. In principle if they work harder people could trust them, but there are other things, for instance the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. If a student would ask ‘Can I look at Wikipedia?’ I’d say ‘Sure, but remember that it’s not reliable as a primary source.’” Professor Dia Da Costa of the development studies department said she uses Wikipedia

on occasion.

“When I Google something it will often be one of the first things that comes up, but I will only look at it as just that—the first and by not any means not the last source,” she said.

Da Costa said Wikipedia has a negative reputation in academia because of a widespread assumption about its knowledge.

“There doesn’t have to be policing of all forms of knowledge, everything can be equally problematic,” she said. “But the problem is when you rely on one source of knowledge as your only source.” Jay Walsh, a spokesperson for Wikipedia, said he agrees with professors’ reluctance to us Wikipedia as a reference tool in assignments. Rather, he said, it should be used as a springboard for information.

“Wikipedia is a general reference tool. It’s simply not feasible to say that it shouldn’t be used as a research tool, but most teachers say that it shouldn’t be used in an essay and we say that it’s probably fine—because if the information is in there, it will have a link and you can go directly to the source,” he said. “We don’t want people looking at the content and thinking it’s 100 per cent correct, but the best articles have dozens or hundreds

of sources.”

Walsh said even by Internet standards, Wikipedia is a fairly odd project.

“The vast majority of individual edits made to Wikipedia articles have been positive about adding something good, a very human-powered initiative,” he said. “The reality is, however, that it’s a fundamentally open big project for everyone and there will always be people coming in and not being great at increasing the quality, or defacing an article.”

Despite Wikipedia’s on-again, off-again relationship with academia, Walsh said professors and other academics do edit it to make its articles more credible.

“It’s increasingly common that you have a class on, say, microfinance, or any topic with new emerging info and the professor might try to help out the articles, looking at ways to get students to get involved and make that article better,” he said. “It may be an evaluative project, or just help out as any volunteer. They want to be able to help others.”

Walsh said the website’s policy on editing and citing articles has evolved since Wikipedia launched eight years ago.

“We went from, ‘First rule: there are no rules’—which was important to stimulate creation of content—to ‘Well, there are policies.’ We think of Wikipedia as a society sometimes, in that a lot of people assume some roles that others don’t want; some people might assume role of a police officer or some people might choose to be the gardener.” Using a technology called “flagged revisions,” Walsh said the new editorial tool aims to heavily monitor articles about living individuals.

“If you go into Wikipedia, using flagged revisions is active on a certain article, when an anonymous user makes an edit, the edit is logged but not immediately reflected.”

Instead, Walsh said, another editor has to look at the proposed edit and attempt to verify the edit or find a citation for it.

“What distinguishes an anonymous user from an editor is an editor is someone who has created an account that has been in use for 48 hours, or someone who has made 10 or more edits. When you are an editor, your edit will appear immediately—you’re trusted not to be a jerk,” he said.

Walsh said that this is part of a broader approach for Wikipedia to be as responsible as it can be

about content.

“That is our large goal, the one [Wikipedia co-founder] Jimmy Wales was encouraged by, the thing that drove him in the early days,” he said. “A more refined goal for us is to specifically improve the quality of information on Wikipedia, as well as acquiring more experts around the world and the ability of others to read it.”

Walsh said the nature of Wikipedia is that of an ongoing project—a constantly evolving entity building its base of information.

“It is, after all, all volunteers. So there can be no end date for a project like that, its nature is that it’s always in the process,” he said. “You watch news on a daily basis, something new happens every day so new articles are created accordingly. It’s much a reference work as it is a sort of journalistic record.”

Most Viewed Pages on Wikipedia in the last 30 days:

•Erin Andrews

•Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

•John Dillinger

•Selena Gomez

•Demi Lovato


•Miley Cyrus


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