Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Wikipedia! Or: Sometimes Things Didn't Happen, and Some People Don't Exist

For many students, when sitting at a computer and thinking about doing some research, the first stop is Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia. It has tons of information on tons of topics. It's fast and easy. So why, when you are asked to do a research paper in classes at school, do professors often forbid you from using Wikipedia as a source? Are they totally behind the times? Are they paranoid of how cool the Internet is? Are they grumpy about how easy it is to do research these days, seeing as how they probably spent entire days in libraries before Wikipedia came along?

It's possible, depending on the age and grumpiness of your particular professor, that the answer to some of those questions above is yes. But there are also many extremely GOOD REASONS that Wikipedia is not considered a reliable source.

Let us say, for instance, that you're doing a research paper on the cartoon Tom & Jerry, and let us say that when you look at Wikipedia, it says there was once an episode of Tom & Jerry in which Tom had too much to drink and bought a huge amount of Brady Bunch memorabilia on eBay. And let us say that you mention this in your essay, citing Wikipedia as your source for this information.

Now your professor might suspect that this information is inaccurate. A good thing about Wikipedia is that the entries are monitored by people, so there are probably people at Wikipedia who will see that entry and also suspect it is inaccurate. Here is what could happen:

1. Someone who uses or works for Wikipedia could challenge that information. They could say that they doubt this Tom & Jerry episode ever actually existed, and they suspect someone made this up.
2. The people who manage Wikipedia could decide that the episode of Tom & Jerry didn't actually exist, and could delete that information from the entry.
3. Your professor, looking up your source, could read the entry for Tom & Jerry and not see a single thing there about the Tom & Jerry episode about drinking, the Brady Bunch, and eBay.
4. Your professor could ask you to please show her where you got that information.
5. You could go onto Wikipedia, look up the exact entry where you got the information, and's gone.
6. And now you are not feeling so good, and everyone is confused. Was there ever a Tom & Jerry episode about eBay? Was there ever a Wikipedia entry that referred to a Tom & Jerry episode about eBay? If there was an episode, when was it made and aired? If there was a Wikipedia entry, when was it published, and when was it changed? It's possible to try and track down the answers to some of these questions, but it's not easy, and it's not fun, and wouldn't you rather be doing something else?
7. Even more confusing: everyone who adds text to or subtracts text from entries on Wikipedia uses a user name. In other words, we only know the writers and editors by aliases, and often have no idea who these people really are.

This is why, in a research paper, Wikipedia is not considered a reliable source.

Consider this: The New Yorker magazine, which employs vigilant fact-checkers on its articles, wrote an article about Wikipedia last year. In it, they quoted a Wikipedia site administrator who went by the user name of Essjay. He was responsible for overseeing the accuracy of site content. According to The New Yorker, he told them he was “a tenured professor of religion at a private university” with “a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law.” His degrees and knowledge were, theoretically, why he was someone entrusted with monitoring the accuracy of the site. It has recently come to light, though, that this person is NOT a professor. He doesn't even have any advanced degrees. He is twenty-four years old and has never taught anything.

This person, by the way, is still employed by Wikipedia. The co-founder of Wikipedia, according to The New Yorker, said about this person's fake name and credentials, “I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it.”

Wikipedia might be a place to START looking for information and for other sources about a topic. But due to situations like those above, most professors don't consider Wikipedia itself to be a credible source. They would prefer that you use articles written by people who use their real names, and which are edited and published by people who use their real names--articles that don't suddenly change or vanish overnight.

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