The Wikipedia research conundrum: Is it citable?

Chris Cyr, Ph.D.

There is a disconnect between how students are taught to use Wikipedia and the way that they actually use it. The notion of an encyclopedia that anyone can edit has led teachers to warn that Wikipedia is unreliable and should never be used or cited as a source of serious research. In reality, most of us use Wikipedia all the time in our research. Defenders of Wikipedia’s contribution model even point out that democratization of contribution is beneficial and necessary for the level of breadth, depth, and reliability it has achieved. If Wikipedia’s open contribution model doesn’t stop researchers from using it, why are students taught to avoid it?

Our recent research sheds light on a way to bridge this disconnect between how Wikipedia is taught and how it is actually used. Despite the instruction received, focusing on Wikipedia’s contribution model does not impact the way that students use it. Students who attend to the contribution model when selecting sources for research are no more or less likely to find it helpful or citable as those who do not pay attention to it.

Rather than discouraging students from using it, educators should give students a nuanced view of the benefits and drawbacks to encourage them to properly incorporate it into their research process. (And yes, Wikipedia does have a place in the research process.)

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Wikipedia in research

If the open contribution model of Wikipedia discourages people from using it, then one might expect those who are attentive to this model to be hesitant to use it in research. The Researching Students’ Information Choices (RSIC) project gave us the data to put this to the test. We had 175 participants, all in Florida and ranging from fourth grade to graduate school, who were given a task to search for online resources for a research project on Burmese pythons in Florida. They were presented with a simulated set of search results, and asked to identify which resources they found to be most helpful and citable. For each resource in the simulation, we noted whether the participant mentioned the fact that it could be edited by anyone. We then linked this cue to the student’s judgments, allowing us to explore whether Wikipedia’s open contribution model impacts the way that people use and cite it.

Students who recognize Wikipedia’s open contribution model still use it

A total of 99 participants mentioned Wikipedia’s contribution model, and 70 thought this characteristic was undesirable. As mentioned above, one might think that those who mention the open model, and especially those who mention it as a bad thing, would be less likely to consider Wikipedia a helpful resource. As it turns out, this is not the case.

More than 50% of the students who mentioned Wikipedia’s contribution model still selected it as helpful. This number is not significantly different from the 54% among those who did not mention the fact that anyone is free to edit the resource. Even those who viewed the authorship model negatively do not appear to differ in any statistically significant way in their general likelihood to select Wikipedia as helpful. Quite simply, our results do not provide any evidence that paying attention to the open contribution model of Wikipedia impacts the way that people evaluate its helpfulness.

Students who call Wikipedia helpful still won’t cite it

Only 27% of students who found Wikipedia to be helpful also considered it citable. We refer to this as “Wikipedia shaming,” and it places Wikipedia in the learning black market where students use a resource but are worried that their research practice is not valid. Our data gave us some leverage to look at whether the open contribution model of Wikipedia accounts for this image.

Once again, we did not see a significant difference between those who mention the open contribution model and those who do not. Within both groups, approximately 27% called Wikipedia citable. One graduate student captured this sentiment during the session, saying, “Wikipedia is usually right. I wouldn’t cite it, but … it’s usually written by people that know what they’re talking about.”

Students have a nuanced view of the open contribution model

These two findings are interesting when considered alongside the fact that information literacy instruction tends to focus on the open contribution model of Wikipedia. Since we find no evidence that those who focus on the model use Wikipedia differently from those who do not, and we find that many students who use Wikipedia do not cite it, this suggests that there is a disconnect between how people are taught to use Wikipedia in research and how they actually use it.

Why, despite the warnings about open contribution, do students continue to look at Wikipedia as a helpful source of information? Our interviews provide some clues to this and suggest that students have a nuanced view of this editing model.

One middle school student explained that the teachers told them “… never to use Wikipedia because somebody can edit it. So, it’s not reliable, and the information on it can be false.” Others view the open contribution model as a way to keep information accurate and up to date. One graduate student mentioned that Wikipedia is “written by a crowd which means the information is validated by quite a large number of people. If there is anything wrong, it gets corrected very fast.”

And many took a view somewhere in between. As one undergraduate student explained, “Teachers don’t like Wikipedia, even though I feel like Wikipedia’s a good place to go if you know how to use it.”

Tailoring library instruction around the reality of Wikipedia’s role in research

Given the disconnect between how Wikipedia’s open contribution model is traditionally viewed and how it actually impacts student behavior, we should reconsider how we frame Wikipedia in library instruction. The 2016 ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education argued that “… authority is constructed and contextual,” and called for students to look to authority to determine the credibility of resources, recognizing that “… authoritative content may be packaged formally or informally.”

Rather than simply telling students not to use it because of its open contribution model, we should think about how to tailor instruction around the real role that the model plays. This can help students evaluate the quality and reliability of individual articles and pieces of information found on Wikipedia.

The Digital Visitors and Residents framework gives us a direction for this. Visitors see parts of the web as a collection of tools, while residents see it as a place to live and leave digital traces. There are few places where this divide is more apparent than Wikipedia, a site that gets more than 18 billion page views and adds more than 20,000 new articles each month. Teaching students to engage with Wikipedia as residents can help them understand the nuances of the Wikipedia authorship.

OCLC’s Wikipedia + Libraries: Better Together program produced detailed training on how librarians can teach users to create, edit, and evaluate Wikipedia articles and feel confident assessing content from this internet encyclopedia. Some teachers incorporate Wikipedia into their curriculum, where assignments require students to create and edit articles. This allows students to see how the open contribution model of Wikipedia works in practice and could go a long way in helping them evaluate other articles based on their own experience with the process.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services grant number LG-81-15-0155.