Thou Shalt Not Use Wikipedia

(it could be any wiki, really) … Read a short essay of how a teacher announced to his class that if he learns that a student has used Wikipedia to do research, the student automatically gets an F. The essay didn’t really go into detail about why the student would fail the paper or project … so I’m not sure of the teacher’s reasons behind such a draconian decision.

Then I watched my son a little bit as he was preparing a paper on the structure of plant cells. And what might you think he used as part of the research? Yep – wikipedia! … But he didn’t stop there. He clicked on a couple of the referring links, made a couple of notes, and called it a night. 

The key for him was not using Wikipedia as a primary source, but as a springboard.

Back to the teacher … I will give him the benefit of the doubt by imagining that he’s addressing the differences between primary and secondary sources and coaching the students on how to do research well.  Perhaps the teacher thinks that Wikipedia makes the students lazy (which might be a reasonable argument to make, frankly). 

Should students be able to use Wikipedia? Or should its use be banned? Why?

About Rory

I make my home in the central part of the Garden State along with my family. When I'm not working as an Instructional Designer (focusing mostly on Web-Based learning ... and other eLearning technologies) or researching something, I'm found at home playing computer or video games. Among other things, I volunteer as a choir member and catechist for 8th graders at my parish.
This entry was posted in education, informal learning, learning, Net Generation, web 2.0, wiki. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Thou Shalt Not Use Wikipedia

  1. Mike Berta says:

    I was just tackling this issue in class a few weeks ago. The professor disallowed Wikipedia as having any use, whatsoever. Further discouraging debate to the contrary.

    Your “springboard” comment is right on the mark. While Wikipedia or any wiki is highly editable and thus subject to error, it is also subject to high levels of scrutiny. Even Jimmy Wales says not to use this as an academic or schooling source. Yes, this is likely to mean primary source.

    However, using it to get your bearings and the delving deeper into the subject matter by finding other sources and references is a perfectly understandable use of the tool.

    Where the ruling from your son’s teacher comes in is ‘fear’. Fear of new tools, fear of the use of tools, fear of being outsmarted by a student. Instead taking some time and instructing how to use the tool more effectively might be a better answer.

    So, no it should not be banned. It should be incorporated into the instruction along with the skills of fact checking, critical thinking, and researching.

    Kudos for Rory’s son for checking the sources and doing more than the minimum. That is the way to use Wikipedia.


  2. Nihiltres says:

    As a Wikipedia contributor, it always frustrates me when teachers take an absolutist stand against Wikipedia. A look at Wikipedia’s featured articles – the ones that have been extensively reviewed and checked-over, should reveal that often, what’s there is of high quality. The trick is, often there are articles which aren’t great, and I feel entirely comfortable with that – Wikipedia isn’t complete, not by a long shot – and more in terms of improving what we have than endlessly adding new articles. What teachers should do is teach how to use Wikipedia well – for high-school topics and quick reviews, it’s probably perfectly fine to just grab a few of the sources from a Wikipedia article, which are likely to be good resources summarized through the article. For more advanced topics and courses, perhaps one might be justified in forcing a student to really research the topic (i.e., in a library or via professional databases).
    That teachers say “NO WIKIPEDIA” rather than “Well, you can use Wikipedia, but not directly – it’s an encyclopedia – and definitely carefully” is really the problem. I applaud all those teachers who have made successful Wikipedia-student interactions, such as those at .

  3. Rory says:

    Mike – getting one’s bearing when beginning research for any subject is always a good way to go. I wonder how much of the fear you mention is due to a myth that Wikipedia is unreliable as opposed to some other encyclopedia. It is completely false – but might still be stuck in some teachers’ minds.

    Nihiltres – thanks for your thoughts (way cool that you’re a Wikipedia contributor!). I think you’re spot on about teaching HOW to use Wikipedia well. Thanks.

  4. JB says:

    Have you seen the articles regarding Wikipedia’s accuracy? Nature News had this information:

    Encyclopedia Britannica as an example of an accurate reference.

    For its study, Nature chose articles from both sites in a wide range of topics and sent them to what it called “relevant” field experts for peer review. The experts then compared the competing articles–one from each site on a given topic–side by side, but were not told which article came from which site. Nature got back 42 usable reviews from its field of experts.

    In the end, the journal found just eight serious errors, such as general misunderstandings of vital concepts, in the articles. Of those, four came from each site. They did, however, discover a series of factual errors, omissions or misleading statements. All told, Wikipedia had 162 such problems, while Britannica had 123.

    That averages out to 2.92 mistakes per article for Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia.

  5. Rory says:

    JB – Thanks for that data. Good to have “in the back pocket” should some absolutist strike again.

  6. shan829 says:

    How insightful! This was actually the first time that I have heard of a teacher not allowing his/her students to use Wikipedia. The only thing that I did hear about Wikipedia was that it was not completely accurate. Are there any other reasons as to why a teacher would not allow their students to use that site?

  7. Rory says:

    Hi shan – I think there is a prevailing thought that Wikipedia is inaccurate; however, JB’s comment above pokes a hole in that myth … when comparing the accuracy to Encyclopedia Britannica.
    There might be an element of the unknown, which could translate into some aspect of fear, on the part of a teacher. But I don’t think that that’s the entire story for most folks.

    It boils down to (in my own humble opinion) how to use and being comfortable in using any tool – whether it is Wikipedia or any other platform/tool that involves an active body of contributors. If a teacher is not sure or nor comfortable using these tools, then it is likely she/he will rule against its use in class or for reports or projects.

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  9. John Frits says:

    DO NOT, DO NOT, DO NOT use Wikipedia! They are not only bias, but HORRIBLY wrong! They claim that sources from a company from the company itself are not valid, yet they also claim that information directly from a company IS valid! See, if they can’t even be consistent themselves, HOW ARE YOU SURE THEY CAN EVER BE ACCURATE ON ANYTHING ELSE???

  10. John Frits says:

    Sorry, gramatical error, this is what I meant:
    DO NOT, DO NOT, DO NOT use Wikipedia! They are not only bias, but HORRIBLY wrong! They claim that sources about a company from the company itself are not valid, yet they also claim that information directly from a company IS valid! See, if they can’t even be consistent themselves, HOW ARE YOU SURE THEY CAN EVER BE ACCURATE ON ANYTHING ELSE???

  11. Rory says:

    Hi John –
    If there is an incorrect entry, then the cool thing about a wiki is that you can make the change.
    I have to say that I think you’re being a bit alarmist.

  12. Merche says:

    Hi everybody!
    I’m not English native speaker, so I might make some mistakes; but I’ll try to show my point of view on this subject.
    Let me tell you that I think you can’t see the wood for the trees… I usually look up information in the web -wikis included, obviously- and I’m a teacher. These two facts set me in a place from where “I can see the wood”.
    As you have argued above, what we have to do is to teach our students (or children) to extract information from different sources. But -this is a fact- most of them use Wikipedia because they don’t have to work at all, they just copy, paste and (in the best of cases) edit “their” essays or projects: No learning, just a way of fooling teachers… Hence, lots of colleagues are “afraid” of Wikipedia. I would compare it to the case of those teachers not allowing their students to use calculators, but making them exercise their minds.
    Of course, there are always narrow-minded people and that could be a case.
    I hope not to have sounded too rude in my exposition.

  13. Rory says:

    Thanks, Merche, for your comments. You bring up an interesting issue of students merely copying/pasting entries from web pages.

    I would assume that this behavior exists regardless of whether they use Wikipedia or any other web site.
    If a teacher is concerned that the students will merely copy entried from Wikipedia, then they should be equally concerned for everything out there in the Internet. And this is the difficulty that absolutists get into.

    If one bans using Wikipedia, then one may need to ban the use of all online resources.

  14. Billy seroyer says:

    hey John Frits,

    just wandering but how old are you. any ways Wikipedia is the best website ever made, most articals are very good and they source them to so you can see where the info is coming from. the best part about Wiki is that it link’s you to related articles, so you can gain a lot of information quickly. its all about what you are looking up if it is about a book say (1984) then it will be a very good article. but if you are looking up about say a founder of a small unknown company then it will not be such good info.

  15. Rory says:

    Billy Seroyer and John Frits:
    I believe the policy of wikipedia not allowing direct contributions or edits from individuals’ or companies’ pages/articles is to in fact PREVENT bias or to prevent the appearance of bias.

    Wikipedia contributors do cite their sources – and I have come across many articles that call for citations to be inserted. It seems that the wiki community is doing a fine job. I would, then, take issue with some of John’s blanket assertions since the data shows differently. (See JB’s comment above).

    As wikipedia is not a primary source – it would be totally appropriate for a teacher to limit its use in providing concrete evidence in a final paper. However, as a secondary source and certainly as a means to locate other sources it seems to be perfectly fine. That a teacher should ban its use entirely is where I have problems.

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  17. Chandler says:

    Recently I turned in a note cards for a class project and the teacher that gave it to me sayed no use of Wikipedia was aloud, and saying how it isn’t always true and how anybody can come on it and change anything they want (even though most of us know that the important articles are locked from being edited by most of the public). Well what happen I turned it in and I used Wikipedia and I also used it as a spring board for more info, he gave me a 0. No credit even though I tryed to explain to him how it was a reliable resource for researching he shot me down right there and told me not to “rationalize this.” Personnly I found this ridiculous for I spent over 2 hours on it and got zero credit. So personally I think students should be aloud to use Wikipedia.

  18. Rhadee says:

    Use Google Scholar! Period. Wikipedia is for idiots!

    • Rory says:

      Thanks for the recommendation of Google Scholar, Rhadee.
      As for the second part of your comment – I’d appreciate actual reasons rather than broad-brushed characterizations that are unhelpful.

  19. “Thou Shalt Not Use Wikipedia | Learn-Learn-Learn” was in fact a wonderful read and thus I was indeed pretty happy to locate
    the blog. Thanks a lot-Tawnya

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