Some professors wary of Wikipedia

By Jonathan Wroble

When conducting research, many students head to online search engines and type in a word or phrase related to their subject.

For almost any topic, one of the first listed links is to a Wikipedia page.

“(Wikipedia) is one of the first things that comes up,” said Lisa Hinchliffe, head of the undergraduate library. “People tend to use information that’s convenient over information that’s inconvenient.”

Across the nation, Wikipedia’s convenience has led to concern among professors at colleges and universities. Some are even taking definitive action.

“Wikipedia is not an acceptable citation, even though it may lead one to a citable source,” reads a new statute of the history department at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
Thank you for subscribing!

After detecting inaccurate information in both term papers and exams and tracing it back to Wikipedia, department members at Middlebury College unanimously agreed upon the policy in January.

It went into effect on Monday, Feb. 12.

“(Wikipedia) is far from being a flawless or even a reliable source,” said Don Wyatt, professor and chair of the history department at Middlebury, in an e-mail interview. “Its biggest flaw … is its method of compilation – one that permits its contents to be supplied and altered by essentially anyone.”

Hinchliffe agreed, explaining that “the level of expertise of authors is a source of concern.” She pointed out that the two main types of misinformation that appear in Wikipedia entries are fictitious and malicious information.

Fictitious information is just not factual said Hinchliffe.

Malicious information, meanwhile, is both untrue and purposely intended to hurt or slander an individual or an organization.

One well-publicized case of malicious information occurred over a year ago, when John Seigenthaler Sr., a former assistant to Robert Kennedy, was falsely linked to both Kennedy assassinations in his Wikipedia biography. While most errors of this magnitude are found and fixed within hours, Seigenthaler’s biography went uncorrected for 132 days.

Since then, the site has faced investigations that aim to quantify its accuracy. The science journal “Nature,” for example, examined 42 science articles and found an average of four mistakes in each one.

But 42 entries make up a miniscule portion of the over 1.6 million written in English currently available on Wikipedia, and the same study found three errors per entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

“The reality is (that) when I first became a librarian, we spent a lot of time (saying) that student’s couldn’t use Britannica,” Hinchliffe said. “There’s a time and place for every source, and that is part of what you learn in college.”

Wyatt expressed a similar attitude, stating that he in no way intends to ban Wikipedia, and that the site is “perfectly legitimate … provided that it is used only as a starting point.”

Still, he believes that the Middlebury history department’s new policy will improve the work of its students.

“Through reliance on more credible sources, better reasoned and more accurately completed assignments should naturally be the result,” Wyatt said. “I would call this outcome a win-win for everyone.”