To try a more objective test than my own need to find Martin Scorsese's birthdate, The Denver Post asked five Colorado scholars to review the Wikipedia entries on Islam, Bill Clinton, global warming, China and evolution.Who were the Colorado scholars?
The results? Four out of five agreed their relevant Wikipedia entries are accurate, informative, comprehensive and a great resource for students or the merely curious.
The fifth scholar called his chosen entry "not very good," found some details to be inaccurate by omission, and said similar entries in more accepted encyclopedias like Encarta do their job better.
Global Warming: Scott Denning, Professor of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University.
Denning called the Wikipedia entry "a great primer on the subject, suitable for just the kinds of use one might put to a traditional encyclopedia. Following the links takes the interested reader into greater and greater depth, probably further than any traditional encyclopedia I've seen"China: William Wei, Professor of History at the University of Colorado.
[Wei] call[ed] the basic entry on China "simplistic, and in some places, even incoherent." Wei said the Wikipedia entry mishandled the issue of Korean independence from China, for example, and the context of the Silk Road in China's international relations.Clinton: Bob Loevy, Professor of Political Science at Colorado College (and frequent writer on Bill Clinton).
"One of its problems is relying on amateurs to contribute," said Wei, who admits he brings a rigorous perspective to the material as a specialist in Chinese Republican history. "I applaud a democratizing spirit, but quite frankly it can lead to, for want of a better word, mediocrity."
[Loevy] said the President Clinton entry was thorough and unbiased, giving fair weight to both Clinton accomplishments and scandals. The bulk of it appeared to have been written by the Clinton Museum and Library in Little Rock, Ark., Loevy said.Islam: Frederick Denny, retired Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado (and a “40-year specialist in Islam”).
"It would have been a great place for a student to begin building his or her knowledge" on Clinton, Loevy said. As did the other professors, Loevy said he cautions his students to treat Wikipedia like any other single book in the library - any fact cited there should be double-checked somewhere else.
[Denny] was "quite impressed" with Wikipedia's 28-page entry.Evolution: Jeffrey Mitton, Professor of Biology at the University of Colorado.
"It looks like something that might have been done by a young graduate student, or assistant professor, or two or three," Denny said. He described the writing as clinical and straightforward, but not boring. Where important translations of Arabic language or fine religious distinctions are required, Wikipedia acquits itself well.
"I have a feeling there are very responsible people out there who are making sure this doesn't become" a free-for-all, Denny said.
Mitton declared the entry "good," even if "stylistic infelicities abound." If a student read through the main entry and the primary links to supporting concepts, he would get a fine introduction, Mitton said.Now, obviously this is not a rigorous scientific study of Wikipedia. But I found it interesting on several fronts:
Always the careful scholar, Mitton scrolled to the bottom of the evolution entry to the bibliography. The first reference cited was for the authoritative textbook on evolution by Douglas Futuyma, "so that is excellent, as it should be," Mitton observed. The rest of the source list was appropriate, and well-rounded, he added.
"Years ago, I never thought you'd be able to use a computer to find information so easily," said Mitton, who consults Wikipedia among other sources when he writes a newspaper column on plant species. "It has changed the nature of studying."
- That the reliability of Wikipedia merited a story in the Denver Post in the first place – in the entertainment section.
- That four out of five “scholars” on some pretty important and complex topics thought that Wikipedia was a pretty good resource.
- That there was no mention of whether any of the scholars contributed to the Wikipedia article they were reviewing.
This article was for the print newspaper, but I find it interesting that the print version doesn’t include the URL for Wikipedia (much less for the particular topics), and that the online version doesn’t include links. Again, that seems like such an obvious thing to do – at least to me. I wonder why they didn’t?
So, I guess my opinion of Wikipedia hasn’t changed much. I still think it’s an excellent resource for students – or anyone – wanting to delve deeper into any particular topic. As with any source, you shouldn’t rely on it exclusively. But think how often students (and teachers) in the past have relied on one source – often the textbook, with the assumption that it was both accurate and told the entire story. And, of course, the great thing about Wikipedia compared to a print resource is the links - you can easily find some of those other sources, which lead you to even more sources, and so on. To echo Professor Mitton, Wikipedia – and many other Web 2.0 resources like it – should change the nature of learning.