Wikipedia not good enough for you? Edit it

There is something irking academics these days, and UW Professor Martha Groom has found herself right in the middle of it.

Most academics don't allow students to use Internet sources like Wikipedia for class assignments and research papers, and most students are somewhat leery of its content. Groom, however, has taken a more proactive approach.

In her Environmental History and Globalization class, students were assigned the task of creating a new Wikipedia article or editing an existing one.

"I was thinking about how to guide students to do a term paper," she said. "It occurred to me that having students post their papers on Wikipedia might be a creative twist on this traditional assignment."

Wikipedia describes itself as a collaborative effort in which volunteers from around the world can post and edit articles with the sole requirement being access to Internet.

Since its 2001 launch, Wikipedia has grown, now controlling more than 8 million articles in more than 200 languages worldwide. The site claims to be "generally as accurate as other encyclopedias" and ranks among the top 10 visited Web sites in the world.

"Because Wikipedia is an open, community-produced work, it allows for some new discussion about scholarship," Groom said.

Students were given a list of potential topics to choose from, but were also allowed to come up with their own.

"Many of the elements that we tell students about in peer reviewed publication exist in the experience of posting to Wikipedia — your writing, citations and the slant that you give an article are all scrutinized by others who may suggest changes," she added.

Though intimidated at first, Groom said that nearly all of her students warmed up to the assignment and thought it had been useful, especially in knowing their work would be available to the world.

"I think they [students] were more careful to consider the types of sources they used, and more scrupulous in citing these sources," she said.

Wikipedia uses peer reviewers — people who sign up to edit articles — to find mistakes and make corrections. Editors, like authors, are also peer reviewed and build their reputations upon approval and accuracy of their work.

In class Groom led citation-based discussions on already existing Wikipedia articles.

"This allowed us to talk about these issues not just in the abstract, and not to solely pull up examples of different quality sources, but rather talk about the effect on the reader of finding articles with verifiable sources," she said.

Wikipedia should be judged by the standards of any other Web source by looking for signs of accuracy, research and verification, Groom said.

Students really understood how important it was to choose sources well, she said, and to make citations visible so others could follow up on an issue if they were really interested.

Though for now Wikipedia may not be changing the face of academia, Groom plans on using her assignment in future classes.

"I found it really did 'raise the bar' for the students, and that they met that added challenge well," she said.

[Reach reporter Whitney Biaggi at news@thedaily.washington.edu.]

Please read our Comment policy.