Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia of over two million articles that is open to anyone to edit. It does well in Google search results and is one of the most heavily used sites on the Internet. Students are increasingly using Wikipedia to conduct research. The fact that anyone can edit Wikipedia has raised concerns from many academics and some of them have banned the use of Wikipedia in their courses. Despite this, recent research reports in Nature and the Journal of American History have found the accuracy of Wikipedia comparable to the Encyclopedia Britannica and Encarta.
A recent study I published in MLA Forum explained some of the reasons why Wikipedia is hard to successfully vandalize. Yet, the type of peer review conducted is different than the scholarly literature and errors do get through. Even if students do not cite Wikipedia in a paper, it is very possible they used Wikipedia to find information anyway. Facing this reality, how can instructors teach students about the validity of research resources?
Wikipedia can be used as a tool for teaching students how to evaluate sources and think critically. Instructors who assign writing assignments should talk about Wikipedia and other similar sources early in the semester. The instructor should explain how she feels about Wikipedia and what her expectations are for the types of resources that will be accepted as citations in papers. Even if Wikipedia is not acceptable for use in papers for the course, the instructor can explain why this is the case and when it might be appropriate to use Wikipedia for research.
The instructor can also have students edit and use Wikipedia to teach critical thinking. Assign the students a relevant article and have them then look up the facts in more reliable sources. Is the article accurate? If not, have the students update the article with corrections and the appropriate citations.
Students can also be directed to articles that assert facts but do not have citations to back them up. Is what is written true? If not, have the students delete that part of the article. If it is correct, find and cite a source to verify it in the article. If other users delete factual corrections the students make, what does that say about the accuracy of Wikipedia?
Students can also be directed to examine Wikipedia articles on controversial subjects. Have the students compare this with articles from more mainstream sources. This can lead to a good discussion about whether bias can be detected in any of the articles. Does the methods of verifying information at the differing resources have any difference on apparent bias in the articles?
Instructors may be tempted to vandalize Wikipedia to demonstrate how easy it is to put bad information in Wikipedia. This is not a good idea. Not only is the vandalism likely to be detected and corrected quickly (disproving the point being made) but it is also rude to sabotage a project that thousands have contributed to for years just because you do not like it.
Wikipedia is not going to go away. Students will continue to use it. How can instructors find new and novel ways to teach about and with it?