Short Changing Wikipedia

What if I were to propose to you a scheme in which you can short change a public-minded institution, engage in a little intellectual dishonesty, and yet feel superior and elitist at the same time? I think I’ve hit on such a great scheme in the “don’t cite Wikipedia, but follow through to its sources” sentiment.

The idea is something like this: after admitting defeat and backing away from the position that one is never, ever to use Wikipedia because it’s the devil’s product, standing shamefully nude without the cloak of either authority or credibility, to block our path to Truth, librarians and educators have come to realize the futility of this position and to adopt a new line of defense: Wikipedia is alright to use for first checking something and perhaps using the links it provides to “follow through” to the sources it contains, but Wikipedia itself is never, ever to be cited. A citation would be proof that one relied on a naked, shameful artifice instead of worshiping at the rightful alter of Truth.

This may sound reasonable at first, but let’s pause (not for too long) and think about this injunction’s implications. First, it means that if I encounter some information in Wikipedia that exactly echoes some other secondary sources, call these sources A, contrary to the convention of citing “A says . . . as quoted by Wikipedia”, I will simply cite “A says . . .” This is an intellectual sleight of hand, and its effect is to undervalue Wikipedia’s contribution to my work. However, since Wikipedia is a non-profit institution staffed by volunteers that gives away its intellectual property for free, it’s evidently not expending enough resources to complain about policies pernicious to its brand. “No skin off my back”, say I as I move on. But it’s the next implication that riles me.

The reason such a policy is advocated stems from the good intention of keeping scholarship from being tainted by Wikipedia’s unreliability (even if this good intention does not rely on incontrovertible evidence). However, don’t you think that if it’s sins by commissions or omissions that Wikipedia commits that disqualify it from being cited, then a better policy — in fact, one already in place — would be to dock people for using erroneous information? Instead of telling people to rely solely on authority — trust the Britannica because it’s the Britannica, don’t trust Wikipedia because it’s Wikipedia — it would be better and more honest point out what people got wrong (perhaps because they used Wikipedia) and dock them for their inaccuracies? This way, people can learn what is wrong instead of learning some rote, unexplained assumption that a brand says everything we need to know about its quality. Of course, this may require a bit more work and knowledge from people who now need to pinpoint what is actually wrong with an argument instead being able to make the blanket statement that, “the argument is supported by evidence gotten from Wikipedia so  something must be wrong”.

It especially riles me when this policy is adopted by the very same people who emphasize critical thinking and the development of this faculty as the most important effect of education. How can a person develop his critical thinking when instead of thinking, “OK, this is what was said. Do I spot inconsistencies? Do I see contradictions from what I’ve already learned? Do I think this is reliable information based on the answers to these questions?”, he’s encouraged to adopt the unexamined shorthand, “it’s Wikipedia, a perennial liar (yet somehow lists  accurate information as its sources), so I don’t evaluate its information”.

If you think that checking on Wikipedia’s sources is a way to evaluate its content, I agree. I would add, however, that if this is your standard, then you should apply it to all sources. You should check on Britannica’s sources; when you read a paper, you should check its sources and not rely on your ability to directly judge the argument in the paper; if you say that this cannot be done due because the effort would be too time consuming and an inefficient endeavor, then may I ask why you don’t say that regarding Wikipedia? If you reply that this is because Wikipedia is inherently unreliable, then can you tell me the threshold of unreliability at which a source should be subjected to such checking? Are you sure you can tell me what exactly is Wikipedia’s error rate that would alone subject it to this inquisition and not a paper published in, say, a second-tier journal? If you’re sure that you can evaluate sources (which would cite other sources, ad nauseum), can’t you evaluate Wikipedia directly? If you say that it’s because evaluation is difficult, then why is it any easier to learn to do by looking at Wikipedia’s sources and not Wikipedia itself? What is wrong with an approach that says, “read Wikipedia. If there’s something that rings an alarm bell, track down other sources to either confirm or refute Wikipedia.”? Wouldn’t such a strategy help hone one’s alarm bells/critical thinking better than the inflexible, and unjustified (at least to me) dictum to ignore Wikipedia when composing a citation section yet nonetheless use its information?

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2 Responses to Short Changing Wikipedia

  1. A couple of addendums (addenda?): From Richard Posner’s The Little Book of Plagiarism, “Alan Dershowitz, [a Harvard law professor], was accused [of plagiarism for] citing primary sources without acknowledging that he had found the references to them in secondary sources that he did not cite.” (p. 7)

    Two, there’s a recent Curator’s Code that features a nifty a website and hat tip (↬) symbol for attributing “indirect discovery, story lead, or inspiration”.

  2. Excellent point about checking on ALL sources…I used to teach ENG 102, which was research writing – the papers I got from some of those kids! Uff da. Not good.

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