In the third grade, I wrote a report on George Washington. At my grandparents’ house, I pulled out the “W” section of the Encyclopedia Britannica and found excellent information. In sixth grade, the World Book Encyclopedia with its glossy photos was one of my sources for a report on the impact of pesticides on pelicans. By my ninth grade year, the CD-ROM Encarta Encyclopedia was a banned source for research on Homer’s Odyssey.
Encyclopedias are not new types of sources. From Britannica to World Book to Encarta to Wikipedia, encyclopedias have changed their mediated forms from text to multi-modal to interactive to social.
These changes in technology do not change the underlying need or purpose of encyclopedias: to function as a compendium for knowledge found in other sources. Encyclopedias point us to other works. Wikipedia does this through citations with hyperlinks to the attributed sources.
And yet, the debate about Wikipedia’s place among academic sources rages.
One primary reason might be the obsolete argument employed by educators for many years: “Wikipedia isn’t credible.”
Wikipedia has certainly had a series of high profile errors, most notably the John Seigenthaler biography gaffe. In the months following, multiple studies have tried to remedy the Wikipedia image. In June 2010, Time magazine reported that Wikipedia is “accurate but poorly written.” In the same month, CNet reported on a pending article in Nature which suggests that Wikipedia is as accurate as Britannica. Lack of accuracy is seemingly an outdated argument.
Now is the time for educators to stop using excuses that diminish Wikipedia’s relevance as an encyclopedia. Rather, we should follow the example of Jimmy Wells, Wikipedia’s founder. While speaking at a conference at the University of Pennsylvania, Wells was quoted in The Chronicle saying: “For God’s sake, you’re in college. Don’t cite the encyclopedia.”