Easy surfing: Students find variety of uses for Wikipedia

January 31, 2008

by Jennifer Eddington

Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia has proliferated across campuses as a place for students to access free, constantly updated information.

Nick Holland, a senior electrical engineering major, said Wikipedia is an obvious choice for someone who wants a wide variety of information without spending money.

“Name another free encyclopedia you can find online,” Holland said.

Holland said he uses it most often for researching pop culture topics, but also finds uses for it in his major when he looks up math concepts.

“Say I’m working with integrals, I search for it and I find a page explaining what it is and it will have a bunch of handy graphs and a bunch of standard integers,” Holland said.

Despite some practical uses, students are discovering that Wikipedia’s ability to be updated by anyone is making it less credible in academia.

Lindsey McDaniel, a junior speech pathology major, said she used Wikipedia as a source until she was told not to by a professor.

“A professor told me it was a really bad source because it wasn’t reliable,” McDaniel said. “Any person with common knowledge can submit an article they think is factual information. Now, I use it to just to find quick and fast information.”

Courtney Culver, a senior psychology major, said she sometimes uses Wikipedia as a starting point for research, rather than a source. She said it is useful for its list of cited sources and links to other topics.

“If you’re looking for something you can’t name specifically, you can usually find a link to something else related,” Culver said.

While it takes away from credibility in the classroom, Wikipedia’s open-source nature is actually the appeal for some students.

Daniel Scoggin, a senior nanosystems engineering major, referred to a random sample conducted by Nature Magazine which found Wikipedia to have a comparable accuracy rate to Britannica, and even higher in some cases.

“It’s probably because people go and update it when they need to,” Scoggin said. “If there is a new archeological discovery they can go in right then.”

Wells Carville, a junior marketing major, sees Wikipedia as a voted-on encyclopedia.
“It’s not just factual, stated definitions like Webster’s dictionary or encyclopedia,” Carville said. “It’s real people telling you what is going on.”

Holland said this makes Wikipedia a more unbiased source.

“It’s edited by a whole bunch of people and it’s checked over and over,” Holland said.

“It’s a whole bunch of people’s thoughts. It’s an easy way to get as little bias as possible, and the editors will say at the top if there may be a bias in the article.”

While citing Wikipedia is not accepted in the classroom, the site still attracts some students with its variety of information.

Mitch Atkinson, a senior computer science major, said Wikipedia is useful for topics he finds difficult to find information on in the United States.

“I like to listen to some foreign music; it’s not stuff you’re usually able to find in mainstream media,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson said he is able to find discographies, references to all songs, research on albums and when the next album will come out on Wikipedia.

Elizabeth Geble, a freshman communication design major, said she uses Wikipedia to better understand information she gains elsewhere.

“I read ABC News and if I read something like a health article and I don’t understand something, I go look up what it means, what it is for, and how it is used,” Geble said. “It doesn’t just give you the definition; it puts it into context.”