After one of the top liberal-arts colleges in the country decided to ban Wikipedia from history research citations, GW isn’t planning on following suit.
History professors at Middlebury College, a liberal-arts school in Vermont, unanimously voted in January to prohibit students from using the online encyclopedia for anything more than background research. GW History Department Chairman Tyler Anbinder said such drastic action is not likely at GW. Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia on the Internet that any user can update or edit.
“I sincerely doubt the GW History Department will be making a rule like (Middlebury’s), because the assignments that our faculty members give don’t really lend themselves to much use of Wikipedia,” Anbinder said.
The department chair and professor said he requires his students to use primary sources from the era they are studying, which means Wikipedia use is never allowed.
Anbinder said students aren’t the only ones lazily using the site. Some professors rely too much on Wikipedia for lectures, he said.
“It can be a crutch at times for faculty as well as students,” he said. “Wikipedia is so easy to get and so easy to use that people tend to rely on it more than they should.”
Increasing reports of Wikipedia-fueled misinformation in student papers caused the Middlebury vote, said the school’s History Department Chair Don Wyatt. The department officially required that the Wikipedia ban be included in the syllabus of every history class.
Wyatt said that while he supported the initial ban of citations, he was unwilling to denounce the Web site entirely.
“My colleagues and I would really be among the first to go on the record saying that Wikipedia should be used, but users should recognize its strengths and its deficits,” he said.
He said the benefits of the online resource include up-to-date bibliographies and general knowledge on unfamiliar topics. Despite these, Wyatt said the site is too unregulated to be used as a primary source.
“In its current state, (Wikipedia) should never be consulted exclusively and under no circumstances whatsoever should it be cited,” he said.
The open-editing process of Wikipedia allows anyone to modify an existing article, regardless of the accuracy of the information. This format has forced Wikipedia to compromise between its accessibility and the integrity of the articles it contains.
Even Middlebury College professor Neil Waters, who drafted the original policy statement, admitted to using Wikipedia as a starting point for some of his research. But he emphasized that he never uses it as a final source.
“It’s not authoritative; it’s a product of anonymous authors, some of whom are very good, some of whom are merely passionate,” Waters said.
A 2005 study in the science journal Nature found only a small difference in accuracy between Wikipedia’s content and that of Encyclopedia Britannica. Britannica issued a rebuttal of the science journal’s findings, but it is still cited as evidence of the Web site’s benefits.
Waters added that even the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, admitted the Web site is not always accurate. Wales stated in a 2005 interview on National Public Radio that users “should take Wikipedia with a grain of salt.”
In GW history classes, students seemed unsurprised to hear of the recent restriction on Wikipedia use at Middlebury.
Junior Matt Hirsch, who is currently taking a European history class at GW, said he did not consider the online encyclopedia a reliable source.
“I wouldn’t use Wikipedia for papers, maybe if I wanted to know something for a quick fact,” said the international affairs major.
Although she had heard of the study in Nature, sophomore Stephanie Sell said she still doesn’t consider Wikipedia a good source for paper citations.
“I just use it for background information, for dates, to check facts more than anything else.”