General Question

jfrederick's avatar

Is Wikipedia an acceptable research source for elementary and middle school students?

Asked by jfrederick (219points) January 7th, 2009

My school has a policy that students may not use Wikipedia as a source for any school-related research. I was part of developing this policy, based on the fact that anyone can contribute to Wikipedia without credentials. Well-publicized incidents of people posing as experts on Wikipedia have been the impetus for this policy. We are trying to teach students what makes a source reliable and how to choose reliable online sources even when you aren’t familiar with the author or website.

I have, however, read about schools that allow Wikipedia as a starting point for research. For example, I see that the article on Wikipedia mentions X, so I can search for that on more reputable and reliable sites. Wikipedia would not be the final cited source for that information, but it gave the student an idea of what to look for. I’ve also read about schools that have done studies of the accuracy of Wikipedia articles, and have apparently found that Wikipedia is pretty good about fact-checking.

I’m curious to know what other schools do to address this question, as well as any problems or success you have had with Wikipedia in the classroom. (I use Wikipedia all the time myself, outside of school.)

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13 Answers

EmpressPixie's avatar

If I were teaching students to research, I’d probably use Wikipedia as an example of a suspicious source. Then I’d use well sourced Wikipedia articles and horribly sourced ones to explain the difference (See? This one has citations.). And probably leave the kids with: when in doubt, throw it out. If you aren’t sure about a Wikipedia article, use the sources it has to continue researching, but don’t use the information in the article.

But overall, I’m pro-Wikipedia.

Vinifera7's avatar

As long as the students learn to cross-reference information, I see no problem with using Wikipedia as a starting point for research.

There’s no reason that you should limit the information that students have access to if they can distinguish what constitutes as a reliable source. Teach a man to fish…

The Internet is a powerful information resource if used correctly.

Ask a librarian if your public library offers access to technologies such as InfoTrac. I realize that this one is geared toward the college level, but there are similar products for gradeschool levels. These types of technologies offer a doctored search engine of periodicals and written materials.

tonedef's avatar

I’d give the same answer that I give when people ask about Wikipedia in college contexts: is an encyclopedia—ANY encyclopedia—an appropriate bibliographic source for the topic at hand? The answer is usually no. Maybe I feel that way because in elementary school, I realized that there just isn’t that much information in an encyclopedia article, and that there’s better information elsewhere.

However, Wikipedia is not “just another encyclopedia.” Many articles are more correct, longer, and better sourced than Ency Brittanica’s. I’d limit acceptable, citeable articles to featured articles, which are of professional quality. So-called Good articles are also pretty darn good.

There’s a section on the site itself about how to use it appropriately for research.

MrMontpetit's avatar

I hate wikipedia. Any members can edit it, so somebody who thinks they know everyone can edit it to some wrong information, and then students will take that as REAL information.

tonedef's avatar

Yes, @MrMontpetit, it would appear that way if you just heard what the concept of Wikipedia was, but had no idea how it worked. In reality, there is a dedicated group of contributors and bots who scan each and every change made to wikipedia in an IRC-like room, and vandalism is almost instantly reverted. Articles that are important nearly always have users who are defensive of their work, and who “babysit” these articles, They remove unsourced claims, resolve point of view disputes through article talk pages, and do general clean-up and maintenance of articles.

It’s not some orgiastic free for all of misinformation, as so many people believe. Read a little about it before you make a claim like that.

nikipedia's avatar

Anyone can edit it, but faulty information tends to be removed pretty rapidly. And the upshot of anyone being able to edit it means that, like Fluther, you often have access to experts that may not otherwise make their material accessible to the general public. For instance, as many of you know I am getting a graduate degree in neuroscience. I am not an expert yet, but when I’m able to improve a neuroscience topic I’m thrilled to do so and always use textbooks and primary research articles as references.

Also, I have yet to run across a blatantly incorrect fact on Wikipedia. That’s not to say they’re not out there, but I am extremely confident of the information I get based on the correctness of the information I am able to verify.

If it were up to me, I’d encourage students of any age to make use of it as much as possible. As students get older I think it’s increasingly important to be able to accurately vet information and verify it with outside, primary sources, but at the elementary and middle school levels I would be totally confident using Wikipedia.

Lightlyseared's avatar

From the Encyclopedia Dramatica

“The People’s Communist Republic of Wikipediaâ“€, commonly shortened to simply Wikipedia, is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) in which participants play editors of a hypothetical online encyclopedia. The goal is to try to insert misinformation that is randomly assigned at signup, while preventing any contrary information from being entered by others. Players with similar misinformation will generally form “guilds” in order to aid one another”

cwilbur's avatar

@nikipedia: Wrong information is usually removed quickly, but correct information can also be removed quickly if it doesn’t line up with what an editor knows. In areas where there are competing theories or where the truth is subjective, this can be very problematic.

(Although elementary and middle school students are unlikely to be doing any research in areas where this is critical…..)

The best solution is to use Wikipedia as a starting point. Even in middle school, students should be aware that they need to verify any fact from at least two different sources. If Wikipedia is one of those sources, I don’t think there’s a problem; if Wikipedia is the only source, I think there’s a big problem.

tonedef's avatar

My last post here, I promise! :)

@cwilbur, competing theories can cause a great deal of stress on Wikipedia, but Wikipedia has a mediation process for handling them, and I think that they’ve done a superb job. Example

Also, if there is a dispute on a page, you sure will know it. Problems or issues with the article are prominently advertised at the top of the page, before any of the content, so you know what you’re getting into. Example

That all being said, the admins do tend to play favorites with editors and contributors, and it can seem hegemonic, at times. But show me a single scientific journal or paper encyclopedia that isn’t.

cwilbur's avatar

Oh, sure, I don’t think that Wikipedia is bad or evil or misguided. I think they have many of the same problems that any other single source does.

The real problem is that Wikipedia is seen by many as an authoritative and complete source, when (like most encyclopedias) it should be seen as a good starting point. If you need a general summary because you’ve never heard of a thing, you won’t go too far off by going to Wikipedia. You’ll get a good, mostly-neutral overview that hits all the high points. But if you expect it to be definitive and comprehensive, you’re likely to be burned.

And I can’t show you a single journal or paper encyclopedia that doesn’t have similar problems. That’s why I recommend looking at multiple sources, because the weaknesses in one source will be compensated for by the strengths of another source.

bmhit1991's avatar

I would note say wikipedia is a good source. but it is a good starting place. a lot of articles on wikipedia show where they got the info. those MIGHT be good to use. and if they really are a source, you could use that as a source instead of wikipedia. but you’d have to make sure wikipedia’s source is credible. not every source wikipedia lists is credible just because wikipedia listed it as a source.

Hobbes's avatar

I second the points made by Tonedef and Niki. Also, I must point out that most Wikipedia vandals are really not all that devious. Cases where people have posed as experts and been good enough at BSing to make it last are highly publicized but very rare. Mostly, it’s along the lines of adding links to advertisements, removing “policy” tags without consulting anyone, and “George Washington served as the first president of JIM IS STUPID LOL!!!!!”.

ItsAHabit's avatar

Many schools do not accept Wikipedia as a credible source because it has absolutely no authority. Real encyclopedia articles are written by recognized experts and are then subjected to rigorous peer review. Unfortunately, people can and do edit Wikipedia to advance any bias they have and the resulting articles are often biased, incorrect, or distorted.

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