What kind of source is Wikipedia?

Emma Oxford is a PhD Candidate in experimental high energy physics at Carnegie Mellon University. After taking our Wiki Scientists course sponsored by the American Physical Society, she has thoughts about how we might view Wikipedia as a “source”. Read what she means.

Emma Oxford. (Rights reserved)

As an APS member, I was fortunate to be able to enroll in the American Physical Society Wiki Scientists course: Biographies of Women and Minority Physicists. I was interested in this course for the same reason many of my classmates were: we are women and/or minority members of APS, and we don’t see ourselves reflected in the mainstream conversation about science as often as we should. Learning to edit Wikipedia, to contribute and improve biographies of notable women and minority scientists, is a concrete way to address that issue. But there is another reason I was interested in this course: for three years before I was a PhD student in physics, I was a science librarian, teaching college students how to do effective library research. This course appealed to me as a librarian as much as it appealed to me as a physicist.

One of the things I told students over and over again as a librarian was not to cite Wikipedia in their research papers, so perhaps it is a little counterintuitive that I would want to learn how to edit Wikipedia. If it’s not an acceptable academic resource, then who cares? But while it may not be an appropriate academic resource in most contexts, not all research is academic, and sometimes Wikipedia is exactly the source you need.

More than telling students what sources to use and what not to use, librarians strive to teach students how to judge for themselves whether a specific source is appropriate. Why is an article in Scientific American okay for the three-page “Introduction to Magnets” paper you wrote as a freshman but not okay for your senior thesis on magnetobiology? Why has poring over IMDb won you eight rounds of movie trivia but you can’t cite it in your term paper for your Introduction to American Cinema class? It’s not that any one source is bad or wrong; it’s that different circumstances call for different sources of information. Wikipedia editors know this – that’s why we list citations at the bottom of every article. If out of curiosity you want to know when Mary Shelley was born, look no further than her Wikipedia page. If you’re writing a scholarly paper about the life of Mary Shelley and the invention of science fiction (sidebar: now is as good a time as any to remind people that the genre of science fiction was invented by a woman), then scroll down a little further and look at the references that are included in her Wikipedia page. Track them down yourself.

Wikipedia is a convenient resource for teaching students about how to judge the reliability of information and determine what sources are appropriate for what situations, but if all you’re doing is evaluating what’s already on Wikipedia, then you’re missing half the equation. Wikipedia was made to be edited.

Academics, including librarians, talk sometimes about scholarly discourse. This is, among other things, the formal interaction between academics that often takes the form of peer-reviewed articles, comments on those articles, and references to those articles subsequent ones. This can feel very inaccessible to college students, who are just trying to get a grasp on reading other people’s research and may not have even thought about performing or writing up their own. Contributing to the academic discourse as a content creator is just as important as citing others’ research, but students may often feel as though they don’t have anything to contribute.

Enter Wikipedia. We may not expect college freshmen to be writing peer-reviewed articles, but that doesn’t mean they can’t engage with the community in a meaningful way. Editing, creating, and improving Wikipedia articles can be a tool for teaching students about this other half of the equation: it is not enough to absorb information; you must contribute to it as well, at whatever level you are able. Too often, students read their textbooks and take what the author writes as gospel. And even if they are savvy enough to spot an error in their textbook, what are they supposed to do about it? Wikipedia is a platform where information can be corrected in a second. This is an important lesson for students: the content creators whose work you have been absorbing for most of your education are no different than you. You should feel empowered to participate in content creation just as much as content consumption. Indeed, the further into academia you go, the more you have a responsibility to be involved on both sides of the equation.

So it turns out Wikipedia is an academic resource, although perhaps not in the traditional sense. It is a resource for teaching students how to engage with content, how to think critically about whether something meets certain academic standards and then, instead of shrugging their shoulders and walking away when it does not, stepping in to improve it. I’m very glad I was able to take this APS Wiki Scientists course. I hope I am able to continue editing Wikipedia on my own, and if I ever find myself in front of a classroom of students again, I hope I am able to teach them the value of participating in content creation, from Wikipedia to peer review.

To see our open Wikipedia training courses, visit learn.wikiedu.org.


2 thoughts on “What kind of source is Wikipedia?

  1. I have been a Wikimedia user for approximately a decade. I am not an academic, but have completed courses, and have also taught briefly as a sessional lecturer, at several universities. I have also created hundreds of Wikipedia articles, and uploaded thousands of Commons images. I completely agree with the sentiments expressed in this article.

    I often tell people that I edit Wikipedia. The reaction is always positive. Most commonly, the reaction includes the comment, with which I agree, that the most useful thing about Wikipedia articles is that they cite their reliable sources, so that the article is an introduction to the specialist literature on the article’s subject.

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