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Isn’t it time to stop Wikipedia shaming?

I am currently working on a research project with partners from the University of Florida and OCLC.

Researching Students’ Information Choices (RSIC), our IMLS-funded study, uses simulated Google result lists to examine what happens when student researchers make real-time search engine result page decisions.

I thought I’d share some of our preliminary findings. This post looks at a progression of student thinking (and questioning) about the value of Wikipedia as they move across educational stages.

Our study examined the behaviors and choices of 175 student participants, across six educational stages, as they engaged in four tasks in response to a grade-appropriate science research prompt.

The tasks:

  • The Helpful task asked participants to select the resources they considered helpful to address their research prompt.
  • The Cite task displayed the resources that the participants selected as helpful, and asked participants to select those they considered citable.
  • The Credible task asked participants to select, on a scale from 1 to 5, how credible they believe the resource is (with 5 being the most credible). Once again, participants were only asked about resources that they selected as helpful, and those who did not select each resource as helpful did not receive a score for the Credible task.
  • The Container task asked participants to select the best category to identify a source’s container from eight possible choices.
Student simulation tasks (RSIC study)

Among the results common to the choices presented to all students in the study was a Wikipedia article on the subject of the simulation, the impact of the Burmese Python on the habitat of the Everglades.

What we noticed across the grades levels, from grades 4 through graduate school, was a progression of thinking, some hidden behaviors, and a bit of resentment about how parents, teachers and librarians address Wikipedia as a resource.

Wikipedia: Helpfulness vs. citability across the grade-level cohorts (RSIC Study)

Wikipedia think aloud observations

Since its launch in 2001, Wikipedia’s crowd-sourced authorship–its wikiness–has provoked debate relating to authority, despite the fact that many Wikipedia authors are topic experts and that a growing number of librarians and academics contribute by adding and editing references.

As an encyclopedia, it is a tertiary source. As an open reference source, it is under continual construction. Just as it is subject to hacking and potential bias, it is also subject to revision, fact-checks, updates and improvement from its well-established collaborative system of editorial oversight and control. We have always recognized the value of reference resources in the inquiry process. We’ve appreciated different tools for different contexts at different stages of research. And yet, from what our participants tell us, Wikipedia continues to be demonized. As a resource brand, it is often placed in the bucket of bad sources.

In fact, the university science professor on our study’s advisory panel shared his positive perspective on the usefulness of Wikipedia, 

I have high confidence in the material because I know that the people who contribute (I’m one, as are my students) are often quite well versed in the subject. Most importantly, the changes are transparent – I can look through the history to read the discussion, much the way I can in open peer reviews. 

While this professor discusses evaluation at the article level, many of our student participants judge the helpfulness and citability of a resource at the brand or source level. The New York Times, Time, National Geographic, Springer journals and Gale resources have well-recognized brand names and reputations that influence student credibility judgments.

Fewer students made credibility judgments at the document or article level, while experts on the study’s advisory panel were more likely to judge the Wikipedia resource at the individual article level, taking the time to note the scope, authority and quality of references that supported a specific entry.

Our data suggest that the acknowledgment of Wikipedia’s helpfulness rises across their educational stage. Acknowledgment of its citeability and credibility dips.

Interestingly, at the earlier educational stages, student decision making focuses on the notion of aboutness across their range of choices. Credibility does not play a large role in student think-aloud discussions and decisions. Wikipedia appears to be an exception. While the Wikipedia article might have indeed been topically relevant, students in the lower educational stages saw its use as a good/bad binary choice in terms of quality and credibility—a choice that parents and teachers advised them to avoid.  In the case of Wikipedia, young students were willing to ignore their focus on aboutness and consider a decision about authority.

Elementary think alouds

At the elementary stage, these quotes represent talking points from our 4th and 5th graders. Note the binary approach. For many of these intermediate students, Wikipedia is simply bad. And there’s confusion over both container and information type. Wikipedia’s openness leads a number of students to categorize it as a blog. On the other had, a smaller number of elementary students see Wikipedia as a starting point to discover additional content. Here are a few typical elementary think-alouds:


Well, I know that my mom told me about Wikipedia, that anyone can just write something on it. So and she told me it’s not really a good site.


Wikipedia, which isn’t very factual because what I’ve heard and what my teachers have been saying. I think it’s more of a preprint.


I sort of say Wikipedia is a blog because other people could post things on there. And then people could put things on there that other people don’t agree with.


I actually just have learned, since for the year, well, a couple of years, that anyone can put things on Wikipedia, so that’s why I don’t really go to Wikipedia first because not everything is true on there.


You really shouldn’t trust Wikipedia all the time. Typically, they actually do have pretty decent descriptions, but there could be people– like [inaudible] just could go in there and mess with it and then just repost it.


Usually, if it’s on Wikipedia or something like that, I’d go back and search the person to see what other kind of stuff he’s written, if he’s good at what he does or if he’s just talking about it.

Middle school think alouds

At the middle school stage, students continue to resist Wikipedia use, perhaps even more ardently. Adults have advised these students not to use it and students fear that should they use it, they would suffer grading consequences. These quotes represent a variety of middle school responses:

The reason why I didn’t pick the Wikipedia for the Burmese pythons in Florida was because my teachers always talk about how you shouldn’t use Wikipedia because they give you false information. 


So Wikipedia I would not put in because my teachers would probably . . . take off points for using Wikipedia. Then Gale I would because– they would be fine with that because they regularly make us use Gale.


The reason why I didn’t pick the Wikipedia for the Burmese pythons in Florida was because my teachers always talk about how you shouldn’t use Wikipedia because they give you false information.


Well, my teachers– well, not only one. A couple of them told me that it’s very easy for people to hack into Wikipedia’s site and change the information. Even if it’s long paragraphs, they can still change sentences and they can make it incorrect.


I want to start off with the Wikipedia one. I’m going to give it a two because I have trust issues with it.


But typically the stuff at the front is just used a little more, which is scary because Wikipedia is always the first one up there. And everyone should know at least that Wikipedia is horrible.


Well, at first, the Burmese pythons in Florida Wikipedia stood out to me because, usually, for most of my research projects, I use Wikipedia, so that’s what I usually go to first for all of my information.

High school think alouds

At the high school stage we begin to see more open acknowledgment of the usefulness of Wikipedia, as well as more balanced and nuanced thinking about its limitations, the norms of its editing process, and the notion of research workflow. Students might not cite it, but they admit to using it. We begin to see students talking openly about the bad rap they perceive Wikipedia has gotten throughout their earlier school research experience.


What I do is go to Wikipedia, and I generally scroll down to the bottom where they have the sources listed off. So I’ve just been going to a bunch of those, but I don’t remember the exact names of the sites I’ve been to.


Wikipedia in general, no matter what, I’ll say it’s somewhat credible because although a lot of the information on there is correct, there is a chance that some of it could be wrong or not checked correctly. So that’s always kind of a crapshoot when you’re going for just Wikipedia. The main thing you’re going to look for is whether or not it actually has sources.


Well, the main reason I’m going to say no to Wikipedia is because we’ve been told since like third grade, “Don’t go to just Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s good for overview information.” Wikipedia is going to be something I use a lot just to give me a basic idea of what I’m talking about, but it’s not going to be my main cited source because stuff on that tends to sometimes be wrong.


Okay. I think that the Wikipedia page is somewhat credible because I know that, usually, they always say, “Anybody can edit it.” However, I do know that they are monitored and that if there’s not helpful information or useful or credible information, they usually take it out. So somewhat credible.

Well, I know that my mom told me about Wikipedia, that anyone can just write something on it. So and she told me it’s not really a good site.

Community college think alouds

At the community college stage there’s a clear acknowledgment of the regular use of Wikipedia as a resource and an understanding of its value for references, getting up to speed on new areas of knowledge, as well as a recognition of the need to cite alternate academic sources in their writing.

This is the point at which several participants described what might best be described as Wikipedia shaming. Our research team connects these confessional statements to prevalent comments from the Visitor & Resident study where participants referenced what the researchers labeled the learning black market. Students admitted using Wikipedia for their academic work but avoided citing it. (Connaway, Lanclos, & Hood, 2013a; 2013b; White, 2011).

Among the typical community college responses describing Wikipedia shaming were:


I hate that it’s shamed . . .. I’ve actually found it to be really concise and kind of like a little nugget of information that allows me to explore further. And poor Wikipedia, and I’m upset that people are mean about it.


Okay. For the record, I think Wikipedia is great, and I think we need to change our tune about it. I think it’s highly credible.


So I know that a lot of people say Wikipedia is unreliable, but I always click Wikipedia first because even though you shouldn’t cite the information it’s a good way to kind of get a broad idea of what’s going on. So I just kind of learn– I feel like you can just learn something off of the Wikipedia page.


I wouldn’t use Wikipedia just because I know it’s not scholarly. Now, me personally, I would use it if I was talking to a friend of mine. I would tell them to check out this page just because of the references. And, personally, I think that Wikipedia kind of gets downed a little bit, but I know that most colleges don’t, and I don’t think my teacher would enjoy that, so I would not use Wikipedia in my report.

I wouldn’t use Wikipedia just because I know it’s not scholarly. Now, me personally, I would use it if I was talking to a friend of mine. I would tell them to check out this page just because of the references. And, personally, I think that Wikipedia kind of gets downed a little bit, but I know that most colleges don’t, and I don’t think my teacher would enjoy that, so I would not use Wikipedia in my report. 

Other community college students described how important Wikipedia was for quickly developing critical context and vocabulary compared to using more academic texts:

Again, I really like concise nuggets of information. This just feels like word vomit all over the screen. I mean, not that it’s not helpful. There’s big words in it that seem important, so I feel like I would be [laughter]–I don’t know. Yeah. I don’t know. It almost seems messy to have to do all this when you can just depend on Wikipedia. 

Four-year undergraduate think alouds

At the four-year college stage our student participants continue to discuss Wikipedia as a go-to source for the usefulness of its synthesis, the value of open editing to promote currency, and for its community regulation of errors.


So even though the information is very much important, I don’t– it’s the same kind of thinking that makes me want to find sources different than Wikipedia even though I know Wikipedia is most likely to have very accurate information on this. It aggregates all these things, and it’s a really good source. It’s just it’s not credible because it’s Wikipedia, not because of anything inherently wrong with the information it provides. There like a bunch of monitors who make sure that the information is good. I think Wikipedia is really great for research. It’s just one of those things that everyone uses but they just don’t credit [laughter].


Because Wikipedia has that negative aura around it that it’s not reliable and that facts aren’t always right. Even though there’s scientific papers in there, I don’t think it’s actually a good synthesis of the facts of the papers that it includes.


I guess because I always go to Wikipedia first, because it seems like it’s open-source and people can kind of update it. As the issue gets more in depth, they can add sources to it. And it’s usually kept pretty– I mean, there are some mistakes, but it’s a good start to researching something.


Because teachers don’t like Wikipedia, even though I feel like Wikipedia’s a good place to go if you know how to use it. I know people can edit Wikipedia. But at the same time I know it’s highly regulated. Like if you change something on Wikipedia, it’ll change within the next 10 minutes back to what it was.

Graduate think alouds

And finally, at the graduate school stage, we continue to see some sly admissions of Wikipedia use for references and the understanding that a wise Wikipedia user will always go to the source.


So Wikipedia, I would not choose. Well, I’m lying. I would choose Wikipedia. I wouldn’t use it as a source in my research project, but I find some interesting information. And I use that information that I find and I do another search, and I find other ways to back that up. Or I would look in the references to see what they’ve got, and if they’re legit. So, yeah.  So I would read that one.


So, even Wikipedia, I would absolutely never cite it, but in terms of the information that I’m reading from it– well, that’s hard to say. So, man, that’s a very hard question because I’m thinking about it. I’m thinking, “Well, I’m reading–” so say I read two paragraphs in Wiki, and if they all have citations and I can go and check those citations, I would say it’s highly credible, because the citations, I went and looked at the journal peer-reviewed citations, and it backs up everything that it says. And therefore, that’s what makes it credible in my eyes, but that does mean I would cite it? No, because I would go and cite the actual papers [laughter].


Well, for starters, I mean, not that Wikipedia is the most reliable source, but it definitely helps in terms of kind of getting an overview of what the issue is here. And I personally like to kind of skim through it and then look at the references that they cite. And so then that way I can see what kind of sources they’re using in their information.


I guess I’m used to all the research articles and stuff of nursing school so the Wikipedia doesn’t totally thrill me but I know that often times they’ll put links of other articles that could be helpful.


Wikipedia is a story. I came for understanding. I maybe shouldn’t love it, but I love Wikipedia.

Like the university professor on the study’s advisory panel, in the higher education sample, students highly valued Wikipedia, considering it a reliable old friend for its ability to get them up to speed on an unfamiliar topic and for its references to both primary and secondary sources.  At the graduate student level, students also demonstrated a disposition toward evaluating the resource at the article level:

Now I’m going back to the Wikipedia article because that provides me with a lot of references of authority. And I’m going to go deep into those references to see if they are helpful. That will also help determine if the Wikipedia article itself is helpful or not. Because if the references here are good, the article itself should be good. 

At the advanced educational stages, our adult participants echoed behaviors described in previous studies. Head & Eisenberg (2010) discussed college students’ habits of using Wikipedia in combination with other information resources and preference for its “mixture of coverage, currency, convenience, and comprehensibility in a world where credibility is less of a given or an expectation from today’s students.” 

The evolution of trust in Wikipedia was documented by Mothe & Sahut (2018) who noted a contrast “between a higher frequency of use of Wikipedia and a lower rate of citation.” Students in their study related positive experiences with the collaborative encyclopedia for both closed and open questions. 

So what?

Is it realistic to shame student Wikipedia users, to perpetuate rules of thumb our students described learning?

At the elementary level, students exhibit a good/bad binary decision-making heuristic regarding Wikipedia as a source. They tell us that parents and teachers consistently reinforce the importance of avoiding its use. After the elementary grades, Wikipedia plays a pervasive role in students’ workflow, but that role is often covert. Few students at any level are able to articulate the real-life and authentic difference between works consulted and works cited.

Wikipedia’s negative reputation is often determined at the source rather than the document level. Not all articles are equally vetted or equally done. This is the nature of wikiness and perhaps students and teachers may need to understand and appreciate the relative values of this collaborative system of work for what it is. While editorial authority may not occur at the brand level, it may be clearly and actively present at the document level. Article references serve to enhance trust and credibility, especially if those references carry the authority from respected institutions, scholars and experts.

Debbie Abilock’s 2012 Educational Leadership article, “True– or Not?” suggested several digital reading strategies K12 students might employ in judging the importance and trustworthiness at the article level. She offers specific suggestions for Weighing Truth in Wikipedia, which she labels as “arguably the most important source of objective information on the web.”

Debbie suggests students develop certain habits:


*Look for length. Longer articles with more citations and more contributors are typically more accurate than shorter ones.
*Look for text revisions.
*Look for editorial ratings. A small bronze star on the upper right-hand side of the article signals that Wikipedia editors consider this a polished article of high standard, whereas a small lock indicates that the article’s content is controversial and is now protected from contentious revision after being edited for objectivity and neutrality.
*Look at patterns of editing. . . The record and reasoning for edits enable us to quickly judge the neutrality of individual contributors and the objectivity of the article at that point in time.

I am also a big fan of Lane Wilkinson’s lesson on Information Needs, Types and Qualities shared on Project CORA, especially the thinking provoked by his scaffold for keeping track of sources.

What are these articles for, anyway?

In the old days . . .

In real life few of us jump into scholarly articles when exploring a new area of knowledge. We need context and vocabulary before we enter an academic conversation. In the old days, before the social web, we would advise students not to cite general encyclopedias, but we encouraged use of these tools for background knowledge as part of the workflow of inquiry.

I remember old lessons where I dragged out stacks of print information types to lead discussion on possible paths for research workflow and the value of some easily recognizable resources–general encyclopedia, special/academic reference that often had the word encyclopedia in their titles, books, magazines, newspapers, journals, etc. We explored the varied types of writing that may be contained within these sources. These discussions involved strategies for developing context knowledge, keeping current, using data, seeking evidence to make arguments, balancing opinion. Of course, cues about container or source type are far less obvious in a digital landscape.

Our research team uses the term container collapse, to describe

the flattening or obscuring of information sources from the print containers that once provided visual context and cues to help individuals identify the documents’ origins. In digital format, a document is “decanted” from its original container and must be carefully examined for publishing indicators to determine the journeys it took to reach the individual user.

One surprising finding was that many students could not identify Wikipedia as an encyclopedia, choosing instead to label it as a blog because of its openness.

Time to stop the shaming?

Might it be time to stop Wikipedia shaming and bring its academic usefulness into the light? Is this shaming preventing the potential for scaffolding a variety of approaches to Wikipedia for its use at different educational levels and at different points in the research workflow of our students? Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales himself is famously quoted in response to students who get in trouble for their use of the resource, “For God sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia” (Young, 2006).

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, but it is different. It is sometime more and sometimes it is less. Context, disciplinarity and type of use play a role in how we view it and how we use it.

Perhaps the early argument should not be about whether to use Wikipedia, but instead when and how to use it as part of our big-picture scaffolding of knowledge practices and dispositions.

Might we rethink how we introduce a pervasive and important and ubiquitously accessible tool like Wikipedia to the student researcher’s toolkit?

It may be time for educators to consider a far more nuanced and sophisticated approach to a tool that is nearing its twentieth birthday.

Study citation: Buhler, A., Cataldo, T. T., Faniel, I. M., Connaway, L. S., Valenza, J. K., Graff, R., Elrod, R., Putnam S., Cyr, C., Towler, C., Hood, E., Fowler, R., Howland, S., Brannon, B., Langer, K., & Kirlew, S. (2015-2018). Researching students’ information choices: Determining identity and judging credibility in digital spaces. IMLS Grant Project LG-81-15-0155. Retrieved from http://guides.uflib.ufl.edu/RSIC 

If you’d like to learn more about our research, consider attending our session at ALA, Saturday, June 22nd at 4:00 PM Washington Convention Center, Room 145A.

Check our our RSIC LibGuide

Follow #containercollapse on Twitter.

Some additional resources for supporting resource container identification and evaluation.

References

Abilock, D. (2012). True–or Not? Educational Leadership69(6), 70-74.

Connaway, L. S., Buhler, A., Cataldo, T., Faniel, I., Valenza, J., Elrod, R., Graff, R., Putnam, S., Brannon, B., Hood, E., Fowler, R., Langer, K., Kirlew, S. (2018). What is “container collapse” and why should librarians and teachers care? OCLC Next. http://www.oclc.org/blog/main/what-is-container-collapse-and-why-should-librarians-and-teachers-care/.

Connaway, L. S., Lanclos, D. M., & Hood, E. M. (2013a, December 6). “I always stick with the first thing that comes up on Google…” Where people go for information, what they use, and why. EDUCAUSE Review Online. Retrieved from http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/i-always-stick-first-thing-comes-google-where-people-go-information-what-they-use-and-why .

Connaway, L. S., Lanclos, D., & Hood, E. M. (2013b). “I find Google a lot easier than going to the library website.” Imagine ways to innovate and inspire students to use the academic library. In Proceedings of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) 2013 conference (pp. 289-300).Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/conferences/confsandpreconfs/2013/papers/Connaway_Google.pdf

Head, A., & Eisenberg, M. (2010). How today’s college students use Wikipedia for course-related research. First Monday, 15(3) . https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2281527

Mothe, J., & Sahut, G. (2018). How trust in Wikipedia evolves: a survey of students aged 11 to 25. Information Research: An International Electronic Journal, 23(1), n1.

White, D. (2011, September 30). The learning black market. TALL Blog. Retrieved from https://tallblog.conted.ox.ac.uk/index.php/2011/09/30/the-learning-black-market/

Wilkinson, L. (2016) Information needs, types, and qualities.” CORA (Community of Online Research Assignments), 2016. https://www.projectcora.org/assignment/information-needs-types-and-qualities.

Young, J. R. (2006). Wikipedia founder discourages academic use of his creation. The Chronicle of Higher Education12.

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Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza

Comments

  1. Patricia Sarles says:

    Joyce, I loved this blog piece! I’ve taught high school research classes and always allowed my students to start with Wikipedia. You’ve articulated brilliantly why students ought to be able to use it. I especially loved this argument:

    “In real life few of us jump into scholarly articles when exploring a new area of knowledge. We need context and vocabulary before we enter an academic conversation. In the old days, before the social web, we would advise students not to cite general encyclopedias, but we encouraged use of these tools for background knowledge as part of the workflow of inquiry.”

    You ought to publish this in a journal!

  2. Thank you Joyce for this very interesting article! At my school we have many teachers who would not accept Wikipedia as a source (primary and secondary classes), but also some who agree that it can be a great place to begin researching a new area, and to locate quality references.

  3. Mary Reilley-Clark says:

    I always talk to students about the treasure chest that is the contents box on a Wikipedia article. Using [Shays’ Rebellion] as an example, we find a letter written to George Washington from Benjamin Lincoln with an eyewitness explanation of the events. Boom! A primary source document!

    Earlier this year I used the treasure chest concept to share Wikipedia while instructing English language learners on disease research. A month later, when I returned to their class to see their projects, many students told me the “treasure box” helped them find good sites.

    And finally, when students come to the library with too broad of a research topic like [plastic pollution], sometimes the Wikipedia contents box can suggest a way to narrow their search [marine plastics pollution]. We are enthusiastic–and educated– users of Wikipedia in our middle school library!

  4. Todd Hillmer says:

    I teach research to students at the middle school level and I often hear the same sorts of concerns about Wikipedia that they have heard from other teachers and parents about how it isn’t reliable and that anyone can add false information to it. I make it into a challenge for the students and ask them to find wrong information on Wikipedia. Only once a student found an error and by the time, later that day, that I looked at it again to show as an example in another class, it had been corrected! Thanks for sharing this article. I say “stop the shaming!”

  5. I love that you wrote this article! What a great topic of discussion. I graduated not too long ago from university but prior to attending, I was away from education for eight years, so when I finally returned I learned very quickly that encyclopedias were not what professors wanted to see in any work cited page. (Oops!) However, some Teacher Assistants would advise us to start with Wikipedia to get a sense of the topic and then use Wikipedia’s references for more research, similar to what Patricia said above. I graduated with a history degree and I will admit that I used Wikipedia all the time to get some background information on what I was learning and then I would ask my professors to point me in the right direction for credible sources and I would use those to write papers. Thanks again for writing this article!

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