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Wikipedia website screengrab
Wikipedia website screengrab

The Wikipedia problem at university Add to ...

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales last year told a Pennsylvania audience he gets about 10 e-mails a week from students who end up in trouble because they cited the online encyclopedia in a paper and the information turned out to be wrong. He doesn't have much sympathy for their plight, though. "For God sake," he said, "you're in college; don't cite the encyclopedia."

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There is no doubting the influence of Mr. Wales's online collaborative encyclopedia. It now ranks in the top 10 websites on the Internet in terms of traffic and just about any Google search will turn up a Wikipedia article as one of the first few hits. Started in 2001, the online encyclopedia now logs more than two million articles, with approximately 60,000 new articles being added each month.

Some of the articles are excellent. Others are very poor. The difficult part, many say, is telling the difference. The beauty of Wikipedia is that anyone can edit it. The problem is that anyone does. Yet, despite the warnings that come from Mr. Wales and a number of others about citing Wikipedia as a source, many professors find students relying on the site more and more. Dr. Daniel O'Donnell, an associate professor and chair of the Department of English at the University of Lethbridge, says that it is rare these days to see an undergraduate paper that doesn't rely on Wikipedia.

This is not surprising. After all, throughout the culture, Wikipedia has become as common a source to cite as any traditional media source.

"I've used Wikipedia a ton of times," says Walter Zimmerman, electronic services librarian at the University of Western Ontario. "You just have to realize what it is and how it works." Mr. Zimmerman has been helping students with research for more than 30 years, but these days he finds that one of the basic roles he performs is to teach students some basic information literacy. "You should consider Wikipedia as a survey of the collective wisdom on a topic," he says.

"Wikipedia can be a great starting point," Mr. Zimmerman points out, "because it covers topics that don't traditionally get room in an encyclopedia.

"The most important thing to consider, though, is the potential bias in a Wikipedia article and where it might come from. That's something that we teach students: to consider the biases inherent in any source, not just Wikipedia. All media need to be viewed through a critical lens."

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