Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Blacklisting Wikipedia & Information Literacy

I taught an interdisciplinary course this past semester, "The Nature of Knowledge." My co-instructor and I focused specifically on what happens to knowledge in a networked, digital environment. The course was revelatory for me, both because it was the first I've taught as a lead instructor and due to how students reacted to our content. The course is going to inspire a slew of blog posts, but I want to start with a plea to postsecondary educators:

Your attitude towards Wikipedia is destroying students' critical thinking.

I say this because virtually every student in the class had heard that Wikipedia is inappropriate for academic use. And it is; it says so itself. The problem is they have no idea why. The most common reason proffered was "because my professors said so," the very antithesis of critical thinking.

Information Literacy & Lists

The third bullet point in ACRL's information literacy competency standards is "evaluate information and its sources critically." This is where assignments that blacklist or whitelist certain sources fail. Rather than equip students to analyze sources, valid sources are pre-selected and often according to arbitrary criteria. For instance:

No Internet sources is a common theme. Even with an "except the library databases" caveat, this is at best confusing and at worst counterproductive. What about Google Scholar, OAIster, Scirus, and all the other open access aggregators? The web is the primary delivery mechanism for scholarly knowledge. One cannot simply write it off. This is especially harmful because it trains students to ignore so many wonderful sources out there. What will they do when they don't have access to research databases? We're teaching them that the open web is useless for research when it's not.

Then there are the blacklists which specify Wikipedia. The issue here is the discrimination: why is Yahoo! Answers not listed? About.com? Ask.com? Conservapedia? The list goes on. It's a fruitless endeavor to delimit the poor sources from the good ones. And Wikipedia is likely singled out not because it's particularly bad but because it's so common.

Finally, there's the inverse approach of assignments which require peer-reviewed articles. The issue is, at least for the first few years of an undergraduate degree, peer-reviewed sources are too arcane for our students. This is less of an indictment of students' reading than academic writing, which eschews accessibility. I've heard grumbles around the librarian blogosphere about peer-reviewed article requirements (Meredith Farkas' screed against freshman research papers is a must-read) and plenty of people are critical of them. They're still all-too-common in assignments.

The underlying concern throughout all of these approaches is that they rarely explain why. Why is the web so awful, especially since many scholarly sources now appear there? Why is Wikipedia specifically worse than other sites that allow anyone to publish? What the heck is peer review and why do we care about it? I touch on all these when I teach information literacy, but half of the time I'm combating the assignment. The ACRL standard is evaluate information and its sources critically, not uncritically accept whatever unjustified stance is taken by the assignment. These assignments cultivate intellectual laziness, to quote my co-instructor, not the skills to critically evaluate any source, regardless of where one happened to find it.

What's really wrong with Wikipedia?

In my classes, I'll often do comparative searches across Google and a library database, then ask students to evaluate a chosen result using a metric like the CRAAP test. I distinctly recall a class when I brought up a Wikipedia article and asked which elements of the CRAAP test it failed. All of them, a student ventured. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Currency? It varies, but most Wikipedia entries are updated frequently. In fact, this is one area where Wikipedia has a structural advantage over other modes of publication: because there's such a wonderfully low barrier to participation, new information can be added as soon as it's published elsewhere. Compare this to traditional tertiary sources (especially print ones), where editorial and publishing processes delay information becoming available to end users. On the other hand, compare Wikipedia to other websites; every article has, down to the very minute, its last-updated date visible on the "View history" tab. Anyone who has helped a student cite a website knows that determine the publication date is usually an exercise in futility.

Relevance? Wikipedia's enormous breadth virtually ensures it has something relevant to say on any topic.

Authority? This is Wikipedia's only problem in terms of the CRAAP test. We usually don't know who has contributed to any given article, it could be a credentialed academic or anyone else. Wikipedia itself dismisses authority, stating What is contributed is more important than the expertise or qualifications of the contributor, a provocative stance which I don't have space to explore here.

Accuracy? Wikipedia articles can have hundreds of references. The encyclopedia's insistence on verifiability and citations are cardinal strengths. In fact, the way I recommend most students use Wikipedia articles is to learn important terminology from them and mine their references. I wrote a paper in graduate school on net neutrality; Wikipedia was my first stop and it outlined not only the major issues but also linked directly to pertinent policies and secondary sources. Thanks largely to that excellent start, my paper earned an A.

Purpose? Wikipedia is admirably forthright about what it is and is not. Its goals are noble (as evidence by its enlightened five pillars), especially relative to for-profit alternatives like About.com which display ads and lack external references.

Yet no one had walked my students through this kind of analysis. No one had shown them the "View history" tab of an article, or its references section, or any of Wikipedia's fundamental policies. Why Wikipedia is a non-academic source was always left as an exercise for the reader.

"Anyone Can Edit"

It's worth investigating the "anyone can edit" argument further, because it appears to be the main objection to Wikipedia.

First of all, it is not strictly true that anyone can edit any article at any time. Certain articles are protected and can only be edited by a subset of editors, such as administrators or confirmed accounts. These articles tend to be common targets for vandalism. They form a small minority of articles.

Secondly, as my students found out, wiki markup is nontrivial. It takes some familiarity before an editor can do anything other than add unformatted text. This was a large obstacle for most of my students; despite an exercise introducing them to HTML using Codecademy early on, many struggled to understand more complex markup structures such as references and links. It seems unlikely that someone would invest a great deal of time learning wiki markup only to write nonsense into articles. Most would take the time to learn editorial guidelines as well as markup, which we did in our class by reading guidelines and Joseph Reagle's Good Faith Collaboration.

Thirdly, the "anyone can edit" objection often refers to vandalism more so than biased or inaccurate writing. The problem with this argument is...how often do you see actual vandalism on Wikipedia? Even the hypocrites who ban Wikipedia have likely read dozens if not hundreds of articles. I've probably read thousands myself but I've only ever seen vandalism once, which is largely due to the fact that anyone can edit. Anyone who spots vandalism can easily remove it and Wikipedia also employs bots to detect and delete vandalism. I made a brief video that covers the points in this paragraph, showing an example of vandalism that was reverted within a minute.

Finally, and most importantly, "anyone can edit" does not equate to "anyone writes anything they want." Wikipedia has standards which are enforced by an editorial community. It is not an open forum for any kind of discourse, it's an open encyclopedia written from a neutral point-of-view. Yes, there are articles which are inaccurate, biased, or incomplete. But they're not the product of a million monkeys hammering away on laptops, they're deliberate steps towards a better and more encyclopedic article.

What's really great about Wikipedia?

Wikipedia has a few advantages over traditional research sources, such as the widely distributed editorship, the speed with which articles can be updated, its strong community norms, and the bots which automate low-level tasks like reverting vandalism. But there has always been one thing that stands out about Wikipedia to me: it is the only source which warns you of its own inadequacies. From inline citation needed and weasel words warnings, to colored boxes up top (unencyclopedic, doesn't represent a worldwide view, personal reflection or opinion, uses out-of-date sources...the sheer variety of these indictments speaks to just how high the encylopedia's standards are, and how often they're not met); Wikipedia wants you to know it's imperfect. Users should be aware that not all articles are of encyclopedic quality from the start: they may contain false or debatable information.

No one else does this. Not About.com, not Britannica, not brilliant economists who make errors in their Excel spreadsheets. A source detailing its own issues is virtually unheard of and can only come about in a community like Wikipedia, where numerous editors representing diverse viewpoints constantly enforce a set of stringent standards.

To bring this back to assignment structure, it provides instructors with an easy criterion, too. If you must blacklist Wikipedia articles, how about starting with the ones that have issues identified by alert boxes? While this doesn't challenge students to analyze sources by themselves, it at least tells them why a particular article is unusable.


I'll readily admit; I oversimplify concepts in instruction sessions all the time. It's productive to create a foundation of a few artificial givens upon which students can build. Then, in a later course, those assumptions can be examined and problematized. So, to some extent, black- or whitelists of sources are useful, they wean students off of poor sources until students can analyze them on their own. Scaffolding is tricky and I certainly haven't mastered it yet.

However, college is the time when we should be examining students' perceptions surrounding Wikipedia. The Wikipedia ban is a high school scaffold; it needs to be torn down in the first two years of college. Students can benefit from using Wikipedia articles appropriately, from understanding tertiary sources, from thinking critically about the sorts of issues that pop up in alert boxes at the top of questionable articles. If nothing else, the heresy of crowdsourcing—that a mass of amateurs can produce information as good as or even better than a handful of experts—must be taught. It's too important to today's information economies to be overlooked.