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ISSUE 120 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/9/2007

Wikipedia banned

By Kathryn Sederberg
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 9, 2007

Middlebury College has banned Wikipedia citations in its courses. (Which, by the way, is already on Wikipedia, in the “Middlebury College” article.) Why is this even an issue? Our professors teach us to cite responsibly: find credible sources and check for author bias. I would take it as a huge insult to have St. Olaf tell us to “be careful of the Internet.” If you haven’t learned that by now, please go talk to your nearest reference librarian.

The Internet is not going away, and neither is Wikipedia. Advertised as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” we know using Wikipedia is risky, just as unreliable as any other Internet source.

The Internet is a huge resource for college students. We can access free news, recipes and advice on stain removal. But how much should we use the Internet in the classroom? At college, not much.

By the time we reach college, we should know that not all Internet sites are well written. Many sites are good and reputable, many are not. The United Nations sites offer invaluable information on their different programs and policies, and other government sites can keep us informed and give us the most current information for political science classes. But when we don’t know exactly who’s editing a site and it doesn’t list its authors, we immediately should be wary of its contents.

Wikipedia is a great starting point for many topics. If a class discussion leaves you confused and you forgot what exactly “Dadaism” was, look it up. Experts claim that most of the content of Wikipedia is, indeed, more accurate than some other encyclopedias, such as Encarta. But if you’re writing a research paper, use your friendly reference librarian and head into the stacks. We have to distinguish between information-getting and formal writing (research with books written by reputable authors).

The stacks are a beautiful place. If you haven’t really spent some good time in between the dark rows on fifth floor, go exploring. You’ll be surprised how fast you can fall in love with good, old books (and lose a few hours, too).

Books have authors. There’s something that Wikipedia cannot contain, and that is originality. Roy Rosenzweig, professor of history and new media at George Mason University, mentions this lack of originality as one of the biggest disadvantages of Wikipedia.

One of the things important to academic scholarship is personal voice, and discourse and even debate among scholars. This is lost in collaborative work: It’s hard to distinguish the controversies and voices that make up any more contested issue.

In theory, we should embrace the idea of “wiki” encyclopedia entries. Encyclopedias are authored and they change. Remember the day before we knew this? When we thought anything printed in a book was as good as the word of God?

We’ve (hopefully) learned to challenge print since then. Anything written is written by someone. And things that we took for objective when we were in middle school, like history books and newspaper articles, are now questioned by our inquisitive, critical minds. Maybe Wikipedia is a good exercise in critical thought.

All things considered, there’s no need to ban Internet sources. There’s a need to educate students on how to use them and how to research. College students should know how to do good research, including finding books in the stacks, utilizing article databases and talking to reference librarians, and know how to use Wikipedia to find reputable primary and secondary sources, whether they are links to good Internet sources or to good books.

Neil Waters, professor of history at Middlebury, said that “Wikipedia is an ideal place to start research but an unacceptable way to end it.” We’re in college. Who expects to write a research paper without moving from the computer? Hopefully no one.

I don’t care if you say you hate Wikipedia. Admit that you use it and that it has its advantages. But the real point of this whole discussion is that college students need to learn how to research and to research well, something I think we learn at St. Olaf.

Copy Editor Kathryn Sederberg is a senior from Duluth, Minn. She majors in Franco-German studies and in German.

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