College limits use of Wikipedia; good idea, site says

Profs say students are citing same misinformation from the collaborative encyclopedia. Wikipedia agrees that its articles are works in progress - and anyway, what are college students doing citing an encyclopedia in research papers? This isn't junior high, kids.

The history professors at Middlebury College in Vermont voted this month to ban the use of Wikipedia as a source for student citations in academic work, reports Inside Higher Ed

The professors justified the ban by saying that that although Wikipedia is a very convenient source of information, it may not always be accurate.

"As educators, we are in the business of reducing the dissemination of misinformation," said Don Wyatt, chair of the department. "Even though Wikipedia may have some value, particularly from the value of leading students to citable sources, it is not itself an appropriate source for citation," he said.

The decision to bring the issue up for a vote came after professors noticed that some students cited incorrect information from Wikipedia in papers and on tests. In fact, one professor noticed several students offering the same incorrect information - from Wikipedia.

The department discussed the possibility of an outright ban but the idea was dropped as Wikipedia has good bibliographies, Wyatt said. Anyway, students would just ignore a total ban. "There's the issue of freedom of access," he said. "And I'm not in the business of promulgating unenforceable edicts."

Wyatt said that the objection of the department to Wikipedia wasn't its online nature but its unedited nature, and he said students need to be taught to go for quality information, not just convenience.

There has been an academic backlash against Wikipedia since its rise in popularity a few years ago. The University of California at Santa Barbara English department decreed that that Wikipedia "is not appropriate as the primary or sole reference for anything that is central to an argument, complex or controversial."

Even Wikipedia officials agree that adopting limits on the evolving participatory online encyclopedia has merit.

"That's a sensible policy," Sandra Ordonez, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail interview. "Wikipedia is the ideal place to start your research and get a global picture of a topic; however, it is not an authoritative source.

"In fact, we recommend that students check the facts they find in Wikipedia against other sources. Additionally, it is generally good research practice to cite an original source when writing a paper or completing an exam. It's usually not advisable, particularly at the university level, to cite an encyclopedia."

Wikipedia has taken strides to address concerns over accuracy but Ordonez acknowledged that, given the collaborative nature of Wikipedia writing and editing, "there is no guarantee an article is 100 percent correct. Most articles are continually being edited and improved upon, and most contributors are real lovers of knowledge who have a real desire to improve the quality of a particular article."

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