Apparently Wikipedia’s still controversial


I have the above t-shirt (from BustedTees), and have worn it a few times this summer on campus.  The reaction has been pretty interesting–apparently there’s still a fairly large contingent of faculty who scorn Wikipedia *more* than comparable resources (such as Britannica or whatever), and, by contrast, there are also a fair number of students every year who seem surprised that Wikipedia oughtn’t be your most-cited resource in a thesis or in an upper-division seminar paper.

To both audiences, then, a couple of points:

  1. GearFire’s “4 ways to use Wikipedia” (via academhack) is mostly sound, although I think that “never cite it” is overblown. In a first-year paper, there might be many situations where a quick cite to Wikipedia is fine–especially if the point in question isn’t central to your argument.  (And, in general, I think good citational practice helps prevent so-called unintentional plagiarism, which, as McCain has recently shown, is a frequent problem with Wikipedia.)
  2. Relatedly: A feature many people seem not to know about–which means it’s certainly not being taught to students, is the ability to link to a stable version of a page.  That’s what makes a citation meaningful: the ability for someone to go back to the source as you used it.  (It’s on the left side of every Wikipedia page, in the Toolbox section–click on “permanent link.”)  The implementation of that feature means that there really isn’t a generally valid reason to ban Wikipedia (again, assuming other general-audience reference works are permitted).
  3. The % of people who get the t-shirt’s joke seems to be roughly 47.  A fair number have thought I was making some sort of deluded pseudo-political statement.  Many have correctly inferred that I’m just a nerd, and the t-shirt’s some nerd nonsense.  For something that’s such a big part of contemporary Google-driven discourse, folks need to pay more attention to its rhetoric.
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4 Responses to Apparently Wikipedia’s still controversial

  1. Rizzo says:

    The antagonism towards Wikipedia is hilarious to me. Sure, there are inaccuracies, but how much worse is it than the textbooks that students use? Various fact-check projects have shown textbooks to contain tons of errors.

    Speaking of t-shirts, would you at all mind if I send you an invitation and a 20%-off coupon code when my t-shirt site is up? (which should be in October). Busted has great shirts, and I think you’ll like some of my stuff too.

    Just let me know, thanks!


  2. Dance says:

    I didn’t know about #2. Thanks. Especially since I’m a little contrary—I do tell my students to cite background information on the better safe than sorry principle, and because they don’t always know what is background, and what is background to their topic is not the same as common knowledge—but I also say don’t cite Wikipedia because you shouldn’t cite encyclopedias anyhow. Guess I should fix that.

    Re the 4 ways, I specifically advocate reading Wikipedia for Context and Keywords and narrowing down thesis/question ideas, but am frequently unhappy with the Links and References they offer, so I mention that with a caution.

  3. jbj says:

    As long as “not citing encyclopedias” is a general principle, which I can understand, then not citing Wikipedia seems reasonable to me.

    And you’re right: the links and references are often overrated.

  4. Dance says:

    Actually, I just realized that my answer to “do I cite this background?” is “your paper probably doesn’t really need all that background. Filler!”

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