Our View – Wikipedia doesn’t get enough respect

Among the many under appreciated and misunderstood resources in our world, Wikipedia.com ranks high on the list.

It is abused by college students, damned by professors and generally shunned among the over-30 intellectual crowd. Now, according to an article in the Feb. 21 issue of The New York Times, it has been banned altogether from a history department at Middlebury College in Vermont. This move, while shocking, is disappointing for the wrong reasons – students should never use this Web site as their sole source.

It is a bit embarrassing that college students would even dare to use Wikipedia as their only source. For those readers who are not yet up to speed on the hotly debated Web site, Wikipedia is an online voluntary encyclopedia where readers can submit their own entries and alter others, usually without restriction. The “voluntary” aspect is what doesn’t jibe with many academics’who believe the openness of Wikipedia can cause incorrect information to seep into the site, corrupting its validity.

In the case of Middlebury College, the misinformation has already infiltrated the Web site and, consequentially, students’ papers. According to the article, six students allowed an egregious historical error into their papers by using Wikipedia for their papers on the Shimabara Rebellion of 17th century Japan.

The mistake these students made was not their use of the Web site, but that they used it as their only source. Wikipedia is a fantastic resource for primary information and a great starting place for research.

If users need a brief overview of an issue, they can often find it on Wikipedia and get a very basic and superficial understanding of a topic, which can help when doing further research. Some entries, however, go into greater detail than some Wikipedia skeptics may give them credit for.

Also, many of Wikipedia’s entries are sourced from other incredibly useful links to credible Web sites that could be used in essays as valid sources. Some even copy information from reliable official sources and paste it onto Wikipedia pages.

Both Wikipedia’s fatal flaw and its charm are rooted in the same characteristic: the ease with which readers can change the content of the Web site.

According to a July 31, 2006 article in The New Yorker Wikipedia’s millionth entry was one sentence on Jordanhill, an obscure train station in Glasgow, Scotland. According to the article, within 24 hours, the entry was edited more than 400 times by dozens of people who knew such obscure information, like the fact that Jordanhill train station is the “1,029th busiest train station in the United Kingdom” and that it “no longer has a staffed ticket counter.”

One aspect of Wikipedia that may be hard to change is that certain subjects are not well-known and people with expertise probably aren’t devoting much time to updating a Wikipedia entry, as was the case with Middlebury College and 17th century Japanese history.

But, according to the Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia, “An investigation by Nature [a scholarly journal] compared Wikipedia to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and suggested a similar level of accuracy.”

The only solution to the poor editing and lack of content Wikipedia is criticized for is for more people to use it. The more people who are using the Web site, the more people may feel compelled to improve its content and coverage of an issue.

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