All-knowing or informational speed bump? Faculty speaks out on site’s credibility

January 31, 2008

by Heather Small

Who is Jimmy Wales?

When presented with such a random question, most people would turn to the popular encyclopedia on the Web, Wikipedia.

However, to answer the question above is to delve into the history of Wikipedia itself.

According to www.wikipedia.com, the free online encyclopedia was born Jan. 15, 2001 to proud father Wales. Wikipedia quickly overtook its older informational sibling, Nupedia.

Dan Rosenthal, a regional contact for Wikimedia, media center for Wikipedia, said, “We’ve come a great way since our creation, growing from just a handful of articles, to having over eight million articles in over 200 lnguages.”

The popularity of the site is not in question; users show their support with vivid numbers.

“We’re consistently one of the top 10 most visited Web sites on the Internet,” Rosenthal said.

Many of the faculty in the departments of English, education, speech and history do not feel comfortable with their students using the free information fountain in research papers.

Tilman Sheets, head of the psychology and behavioral sciences department, said he would not use Wikipedia as a reliable source.

“[Wilipedia] is an open-source document,” Sheets said.

He said the source is open for errors in research, and described the encyclopedia as a “trivia site.”

Althought many professors refuse to accept Wikipedia as a reliable source from their students, they admit to using the site for their personal interests.

Questioned faculty said they never use it in a professional situation, such as a research paper or any other published information, but most said it is a good start for beginning researchers.

Shane Puckett, a speech instructor and director of the debate team, said, “If you have no opinion, no understanding, then maybe that is somewhere to go, but you have to have the understanding that [the information] may be false.”

There is one question students might find difficult to answer, Puckett said.

“There are so many other sources out there. Why would you choose to use a source that has been proven falliable?” Puckett asked.

Puckett explained why he does not allow his debate students to use the growing information Web site.

“If they were to go into a competition and quote Wikipedia as a source, not only would that infromation be shot down by another source that some other student had [researched], but you couldn’t prove the authorship,” Puckett said.

“Most of the time in that format of debate, proving authorship is key.”

Rosenthal said the reason many professors might question Wikipedia’s reliability as a source is because of its “anyone can edit” policy.

Stephen Webre, head of the history department and a professor of history, said, “Wikipedia is an interesting experiment because what it is attempting to do is to mobilize the expertise of everyone out there.”

He called the Web site a “general collaboration” and explained that some false information is taken down by the Wikipedia staff, but removing all the false information would be impossible by such a group.

“You have to question about how quality is maintained and what your assurance is that the article is sound,” Webre said.

Rosenthal said Wikipedia is a completely user-created experience, but overall the staff agrees with the faculty.

“Wikipedia is not meant to be a primary research source,” Rosenthal said.

“It’s a great way to quickly get a good background on a topic that you are searching for; however, because of the ‘anyone can edit’ nature, it should not be cited as a primary source.”

In the end, both the interviewed faculty and the staff of Wikipedia agree that, in the words of Webre, “All information is not equal.”