Sunday, May 09, 2010

Sunday Salon-- the Wikipedia Issue

Personally, I like Wikipedia. When researching something I know nothing about, a good Wikipedia article can give me some background that can help me formulate a search, and often has a full bibliography of sources that can't be changed by a bored 13-year-old.

Wikipedia is great for finding sources. It is never an acceptable source.

Last winter, I read Say What?: The Weird and Mysterious Journey of the English Language because it was a Cybil's nominee. I found it interesting, but seriously flawed. When I saw that the author used Wikipedia as a source, it shut the book down for me. There was no point in going through all of its flaws when it had such a major and completely unacceptable one.

One commenter told me "You were going to write a long review, so you must have found some enjoyment in this book. Instead you see "wikipedia" and throw a wobbley. You shouldn't be reviewing books if that's all it takes to sway your opinion."

I responded "If any of the elementary school students I help with their research ever quoted Wikipedia, they would automatically fail the paper. I'm sorry you have such disrespect for children that you think their nonfiction books can be held to a lower standard than their own homework. Why waste the time of my readers with writing a much longer review examining the books other flaws?"

Frankly, the comment pissed me off almost as much as seeing Wikipedia cited as a valid source. Students aren't allowed to cite Wikipedia, but their sources are? What the hell kind of message are we sending about authorative sources and research methods? But no, because I care so deeply and have standards, I shouldn't be allowed to review books? $%^# that.

Even worse, someone nominated it to be a an example of excellent nonfiction for middle grade and teen readers! It was also an "vetted" nominee for the YALSA award for Excellence in Nonfiction, which means you can stick a big ALA-approved sticker on it.

The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthyThis hit home again this weekend as I was reading The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy by James Cross Giblin. I was really excited by this book. I'm obsessed with McCarthy (I mean, until a few years ago, my hometown had a larger-than-life bust of him in the lobby of county courthouse.) I also loved Giblin's Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth.

I was about half-way though it, and really enjoying it, when I glanced through the back matter. Wikipedia, wikipedia, wikipedia, wikipedia, wikipedia. WHAT THE WHAT?

The School Library Journal Review mentions it and criticizes it, but it still was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize.

In introducing his sources notes*, Giblin states "In my research you'll see that I made extensive use of the Internet, especially Wikipedia. But I accompanied it with parallel research in the Columbia Encyclopedia because I still put more faith in a traditionally edited and cross-checked encyclopedia than in what maybe a more loosely-assembled Internet source."

Let's not touch the fact that he relies heavily on an encyclopedia (I stopped being allowed to cite an encyclopedia in 7th grade, being told to use more in-depth sources instead.)

Giblin instead conflates "Wikipedia" and "Internet" (for, as far as I can see, Wikipedia is the ONLY interent source used.) He uses quotations found on Wikipedia with no other source listed. And yes, some of the information he only used Wikipedia for is correct. But, he surely could have found another source to say that Nixon became President, opened up relations with China, resigned due to Watergate, and died in 1994. Wikipedia doesn't have an exclusive on that.

And maybe it's because Giblin relied on Wikipedia that he gets somethings just wrong about China. On page 18 "the Japanese invaded northern China proper and occupied key cities of Tientsin and Beijing, then called Peking." Later on the page he mentions "Mao Tse-tung (now spelled Zedong)."

Beijing wasn't then called Peking, it was then spelled Peking. The Chinese has always been 北京 (but, during WWII, the city was called something completely different.)** The same transliteration system change that changed Tse-tung into Zedong changed Peking into Beijing. It didn't change the Chinese at all, it just changed the spelling to more accurately reflect how the words are supposed to be pronounced. (He also fails to mention that Tientsin is now spelled Tianjin.)

But Giblin instead relied on lazy and shoddy research. Usually it didn't hurt him, but at least in this instance, it did. He's just WRONG.

I'm not going to finish the book.

I will spit if it wins any awards.

But I feel that others will think I'm "throwing a wobbley" because I think that Wikipedia shouldn't be cited as a source in nonfiction.

Am I alone here? Is there a reason why we should allow this to be ok? Should we accept Wikipedia as a source in our nonfiction? (And, if we do, should we allow students to start citing it in their research? because if we allow the first, we have to allow the second.)

And what's the best course to take when we see such research being published and awarded? What can we do to demand better standards for our youth?

*Ok, so at least he had source notes. So many other nonfiction books for younger readers, especailly those that are "young reader editions" of adult titles don't have any source notes or bibliography at all. But that's a different rant.

**And you may think this whole naming/spelling thing is petty but... let's also look at the fact that during WWII, the city was called 北平, which is transliterated as Beiping or Peiping. For "jing" means capital ("bei" means north) and during the Republican Era, the capital was in Nanjing ("nan" meaning south) and so Beijing (Northern Capital) was changed to Beiping (Northern Plain) and changed back to Beijing when the Communists declared it their capital. (Nanjing, "Southern Capital" got the stay Nanjing.) It's worth knowing this, because the US only recognized Taiwan as being China and for the next few decades refused to call the city "Beijing" and insisted on calling in "Beiping."

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nomadreader said...

I stop short of saying "never an acceptable source." I'm also a librarian, and I teach an undergraduate course on information literacy. My students know they have to convince me if they want to use it. It has flaws, naturally, but I am a huge fan of Wikipedia's visual effects. My class also talks about Twitter as a primary source. The most important thing I can equip my students with are the critical analysis skills to assist them in a changing Web environment. Two years ago, I would have agreed about Wikipedia, but now I'm not convinced. Article by article, it needs to be assessed.

nomadreader said...

Also, there is a world of difference between college students (or high school students) using Wikipedia than an author with a book deal. S/he should have the time and resources to research deeper than a basic Web reference source.

Jennie said...

nomadreader-- I'll have to think more on the issues you raise. My gut reaction is that if you're good enough to assess each article, you're good enough to do a level of research where you shouldn't be using any encyclopedia and instead using other sources. When I was in college or high school, I wasn't allowed to use any encyclopedia as a source.

But, I think you have a point about the visuals. I think Twitter could be a primary source, especially when a major event is happening (I'm thinking of the Iranian elections in particular.)

Unknown said...

This very topic came up in my 7th grade class the other day. A student informed me that the high school does not allow Wikipedia as a source, but I do. I think Wikipedia is very under-rated by most teachers who formed their opinions about it back when it first came out. It's true that anyone can change it (if they're will to jump through the necessary hoops) and I agree it should not be cited as a source for original research at the college level, probably for more advanced high school work as well. The site says as much in its policies.

But it really is a very good source. As you say, it's fully footnoted and includes a bibliography which is more than one can say for traditional encyclopedia and many published works of non-fiction. If there is a problem with an article wikipedia puts a warning at the top of it. All of the changes that have been made to an article are clearly listed in the article's history.

A few years ago Nature magazine did a study comparing Wikipedia with the Encyclopedia Britannica and found them to be "about the same" as far as accuracy goes. They were reviewing science articles.

I'm with nomadreader. At this point in time, one has to look at Wikipedia on an article by article basis. If a student is looking for general information about a topic, they should be sent to Wikipedia first. It really is the best source for general information you'll find if you're teaching students to do research in order to find the information they need. And it has an article for just about everything one can name.

When teaching students to write more advanced research papers, I do insist on at least two additional sources other than Wikipedia.

I would expect a non-fiction book to do the same. Certainly an award winning non-fiction book.

I'd love to see the Nature study repeated or to see someone else to an unbiased comparison between Wikipedia and more traditional sources. My money would be on Wikipedia at this point.

Oh, and if you find some errors on Wikipedia, you should do an edit. I hear it can really boost your blog traffic. ;-)

Charlotte said...

I myself have used Wikipedia as a primary source, to find out what people are thinking about certain things. And I have added information to one topic that I am an authority on--for this subject about which there is no accessible pubished information, wikipedia might well be the best source going.

But I would never use it as a secondary source unless I had absolutly no other choice.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I got frustrated the other day, working with a second grade class researching famous people. Tried both encyclopedias in the database. Nothing. Tried NetTrekker. Nothing. EBSCO. Nothing. Tried some authoritative sources online specific to the person being researched, but all of these were blocked by my district! I finally okayed Wikipedia, adding a million cautionary remarks.

DM said...

It depends for which purposes you use a source.

If it is to establish a fact, then Wikipedia is not citable as a source. Wikipedia articles should contain proper citations for the facts they contain; thus, they can lead to sources. Of course, if one has made extensive use of Wikipedia for finding these sources, then one should probably credit Wikipedia as a courtesy.

Another use is to find a concise and expressive definition for a word of phrase for which one already knows a definition. For instance, I once saw a esteemed colleague using the definition of "formal methods" from Wikipedia in a presentation. My colleague is an expert in formal methods, with international peer-reviewed publications and industrial contributions under his belt; there is no question he knows what formal methods are. What he needed was a nice, short, definition, and Wikipedia provided it. Again, common academic courtesy is to cite the source.

Liz B said...

Add me to the "it depends" group for using wikipedia.

Yes: popular culture information, such as television shows or fanfiction definitions.

No: "real history." But to use Wikipedia to find those real history sources? Yes.

Anonymous said...

I am a big Wikipedia skeptic too, and think a scholar like Giblin should not be citing it as authoritative. But it is an impressive resource and I take it much more seriously than I used to... especially after reading The Wikipedia Revolution : How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia by Andrew Lih. Surprisingly readable and intriguing.

Anonymous said...

We let our students use Wikipedia as a source, but only after we teach them how to evaluate sources. How do they learn to evaluate if we limit the sources we let them use? We remind them that Wikipedia is only one source among many that they should use. And that it isn't always the first or best source.