Many AU students use Wikipedia, a Web-based free-content encyclopedia, as a source for papers and other class assignments despite recent controversy surrounding the Web site.
Wikipedia uses wiki software on the site so users can add and edit content. The name is based on the Hawaiian word “wiki,” which means “quick,” “fast,” or “to hasten,” according to the Web site.
While it is a reference work, it should be used as a supplement to other research, according to Jimmy Wales, the disputed founder of the site after a falling-out with co-founder Larry Sanger.
However, editors have disagreed on certain issues - even Wales. According to Wired Magazine’s Web site, Wales edited his own biography on Wikipedia and deleted phrases referring to former employee Larry Sanger as co-founder of Wikipedia. The principles of Wikipedia generally discourage the practice of editing one’s own biography.
“You should not write about yourself, since objectivity on the subject is hard - but you can assist by providing references, by challenging unsourced statements and by assisting other editors,” according to a statement on the site.
There has also been recent trouble with others’ biographies. The Wikipedia biography of John Seigenthaler Sr., former editor of The Tennessean in Nashville and Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant in the early 1960s, was posted in 2005 with false information.
According to an editorial Seigenthaler wrote in USA Today, the Wikipedia contributor wrote, “For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.”
The biography, which was posted May 26, was deleted from the Web site’s history Oct. 5, according to his editorial. It has since been corrected on Wikipedia, and the controversy was added to the article.
Articles should be viewed with a critical eye because of how new the site is,” Wales said. “Because currently Wikipedia is a work in progress, any particular page in Wikipedia should be questioned in an open mind.”
Ira Klein, a professor of world history at AU said Internet resources such as Wikipedia must be viewed with a “buyer beware” attitude.
“[The Internet’s] a wonderful potential source,” he said, but people need training in what may or may not be reliable online because the Internet is still primitive.
Wales has said in previous articles that Wikipedia is not up to Encyclopedia Britannica’s standards, but it is getting better.
Article contributors may disagree about certain issues, but with Wikipedia they can agree on the presentation of it, Wales said. Editors and contributors are asked to maintain a “neutral point of view” principle by representing issues without bias, according to the Web site. Editors do not have to register with Wikipedia to change articles, but those who wish to write articles of their own do.
Contributors and editors can discuss an article in the discussion section of each article. When the process works, “fantastic dialogue” is established, Wales said.
John Hyman, director of the College Writing Program, said he thinks students use Wikipedia as a first stop in the research process, which is good when used cautiously.
“Some students over-rely on it and over-trust it,” he said.
When Hyman first heard about the Seigenthaler controversy, he said he was astonished not only at that, but at how his students were not as bothered by it.
“That story ... has actually compelled me to tell students to don’t use it at all,” Hyman said.
Laura Matteo, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, said she uses Wikipedia once in a while to look up a definition or a historical date. The site comes up frequently on the Yahoo search engine, she said.
“It’s short, sweet and concise,” Matteo said.
Wikipedia’s articles are stronger in the pop culture and technology areas and weaker in the humanities, according to Wales.
“It’s a great thing just for broad background information,” he said.