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Professors should allow use of Wikipedia

Wikipedia is often criticized for possible inaccuracies, and many college professors instruct students in their syllabi not to use it for research. However, most students still consult it, according to a report published in First Monday, a peer-reviewed journal.

The study, based on responses from 2,318 students and data from focus groups, found that 52 percent of students frequently or always consult Wikipedia during course-related research. Only 22 percent of students said they rarely or never use the user-generated encyclopedia.

Because anyone with Internet access can write, edit or vandalize articles on Wikipedia, many have dismissed the Web site as unreliable and inappropriate for academic research.

Professors should not be so quick to dismiss it, though. While no one should ever use Wikipedia as a primary source, it is a great place to get general information, and it can be a great starting point for research.

Professors should actively encourage students to use Wikipedia. If students are going to consult the site anyway, they should be taught how to use it properly. The report found that most students are already using the site intelligently.

Seventy percent of respondents went to Wikipedia at the very beginning or near the beginning of the research process. The top two reasons for turning to the site during research were to “obtain a summary” and to “get started” on the assignment.

Likewise, Conventional encyclopedias and dictionaries shouldn’t be used as actual sources but can give students general information or help them understand terms. Despite the threat of vandalism, Wikipedia may be nearly as reliable as traditional sources.

Nature magazine conducted a study comparing the accuracy of Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica Web site in 2005. Nature selected entries from both sites on the same topic and sent them to experts for peer review. The experts were not told which article came from which source.

In the 42 usable reviews, there were only eight serious errors – four from each site. There were more minor factual errors, omissions and misleading statements: 162 from Wikipedia and 123 from Britannica.

This only proves that information gathered from any source should be verified elsewhere. Students should question anything that seems suspicious or farfetched. But when used responsibly, Wikipedia can be a valuable tool for research projects. Rather than shun it, professors should embrace it as a legitimate resource.