Wikipedia “Presearch”?

The Vice President and Publisher of digital and reference content for Oxford University Press Casper Grathwohl wrote an article in The Chronicle Review titled, “Wikipedia Comes of Age” that was recently published by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

There are many legitimate reasons to be concerned with the indiscriminant use of Wikipedia as an authoritative source of information when doing any kind of research.  I’ve had first hand disappointments myself using Wikipedia even as a starting point for becoming familiar with a topic of interest.  Even so, I still find Casper Grathwohl’s article well written and from an interesting perspective worth considering.  There are three portions in particular that I highlighted which are quoted below:

  1. “We all acknowledge that the Internet is evolving at a dizzying pace.  From the point of view of information delivery, it is fascinating to watch the way in which layers of authority have begun to emerge.  That development should come as no surprise—a natural progression in any new knowledge system is for it to divide into layers of information authority.  Not all information is created equal.  The bottom layers (the most ubiquitous, whose sources are the most ephemeral, and with the least amount of validation) lead to layers with greater dependability, all the way to the highest layers, made up mostly of academic resources maintained and validated by academic publishers that use multiple peer reviews, trained editors, and scholarly reviewers.  When the system is effective, the layers serve to reinforce one another through clear pathways that allow queries to move from one layer to another with little resistance.”
  2. “A study carried out by Alison Head and Michael Eisenberg, published in a March 2010 edition of the Web journal First Monday, surveyed university students about their research habits and, in particular, how they begin research projects. Most of the nearly 2,500 students who responded said they consult Wikipedia, but when questioned more deeply, it became clear that they use it for, as one student put it, “pre-research.”  In other words, to gain context on a topic, to orient themselves, students start with Wikipedia.”
  3. “For a knowledge system to function effectively, its users must have an intuitive understanding of the layers it contains.  Today, when starting a serious research project, students are faced with an exponentially larger store of information than previous generations, and they need new tools to cut through the noise.  Intuitively they are using Wikipedia as one of those tools, creating a new layer of information-filtering to help orient them in the early stages of serious research.  As a result, Wikipedia’s role as a bridge to the next layer of academic resources is growing stronger.”

These excerpts from the article do not convey the full context the article provides for how the author’s own personal experiences and observations led him to certain conclusions.  As a result, it’s worth reading the entire article along with the numerous and sometimes passionate comments linked to the online version.  Wikipedia has a way of generating spirited discussion within higher education circles and there are several well articulated points of view among the comments people made.

Meanwhile, students are using Wikipedia for research and education regardless of whether or not the practice should be considered “good” or “bad” even as the debates about the integrity of Wikipedia as a an information resource continue.  Apparently, whether or not Wikipedia should be allowed or forbidden as part of research and education is not discouraging students from using it.

Chief Technology Officer at UMassOnline Patrick Masson did some research recently and found that Wikipedia is made available via links from 270,000 .edu website domains.  He also found that 2,388 links to Wikipedia were provided from the 40,000 course sections hosted by UMassOnline. 

Is there a “pre-search” role for Wikipedia in research and education as an information resource that should somehow be supported by librarians and educational technologists?

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One thought on “Wikipedia “Presearch”?

  1. To place their research topic within context quicky, students like to use Internet sources and Wikipedia. At our institution’s library instructions sessions, the librarians acknowledge that some of the content on Wikipedia is reliable and authoritative (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reliability_of_Wikipedia), but emphasize to students that they need to qualify their sources and use other reliable reference sources as well.

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