Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Wikipedia and new forms of citation

The history department at Middlebury has banned citing Wikipedia as a research source in term papers and exams. This is a neat article because the author notes some of the potential problems with using Wikipedia as a cited source--the history department recognizes that it's still useful (and ubiquitous) as a source for consultation--but he also talks to professors who have asked students to prepare entries for the site as assignments so that students can learn about what it's like to present information in such a genre. Both Jimmy Wales and a professor in the Middlebury history department make the point that encyclopedias don't make for good research citations in academic writing anyway, whether they're from a wiki, Britanica, or Encarta. Wales gets a predictably inflated comparison in there: telling the kids to stop consulting Wikipedia would be like telling them, 'don’t listen to rock ’n’ roll either.'"

When I've talked about Wikipedia as a source in classes in the past, I've framed it the discussion as one where we can talk what we're doing when we cite stuff and why it matters to assess the position, rhetorical stance, and limitations of sources. I'm interested in the odd cases where new sources of information do yield potentially useful directions for research. Do you cite Wikipedia on a "Works Consulted" list but not a "Works Cited" list? A few of my students have found Wikipedia entries useful for pointing to outside sources (one entry quoted a magazine article that she wouldn't have known about otherwise; it seemed important, then, to cite where she had found the reference to that article, as well as to find the magazine article and read it for a fuller context). Another student found several citations to news articles at, which doesn't have uniform citations but does provide outside links to online editions of print news sources sometimes. Again, that site was a good starting place--not an ending place--to look for information she wouldn't have found otherwise. Sometimes we make notes in footnotes if we've found a citation or a quotation in another print source, so how would it work with website citation?
Blogger Ben on Tue Mar 13, 11:24:00 PM:
But if you do consult Wikipedia for orientation, serendipitous connections and updates on any recent developments, isn't it dishonest not to cite it? After all, there are many sources that we cite without being sure of the accuracy of their content; whether we are citing properly is not a question of what work appears at the footnote, but of what context we place the reference in. What other reference could better accompany a sentence like "Popular opinion in public forums holds that the mysterious death of Zviad Gamsakhurdia was most likely a suicide"?