Friday, June 01, 2007

Wikpedia, once again

The subject of Wikipedia's accuracy and authority reared it's head again recently on the AASL (American Association of School Librarians) listserv. Librarians - many of them anyway - sure do seem to hate Wikipedia. The thread was prompted by a comment that said basically that school librarians should neither use it nor link to it, nor tolerate its use. I entered two responses, which I think are self explanatory, and I'll share them here.

The first post:
Well, RUSA named Wikipedia
one of the best free reference sites in 2005 and it remains on the combined 1999-2006 index: "This is an index of the web sites included in the 1999-2006 annual lists issued by theMars Best of Free Reference Web Sites Committee of the Machine-AssistedReference Section (MARS) of the Reference and User Services Association(RUSA) of ALA to recognize outstanding reference sites on the World WideWeb."

The individual RUSA site review notes the well-known potential issues. There are potential issues with any reference source, which users should be aware of and consider. That's what becoming information literate is about, in part.

To dismiss everything in Wikipedia out of hand along with any open sourceweb site in general seems almost bizarre, given the studies that have found overall reliability and accuracy of Wikipedia on par with more traditionalgeneral purpose reference resources, and superior in some areas.

That Wikipedia is not considered sufficient as a primary research source for academic assignments in higher ed is an entirely different argument with an entirely different set of guiding principles. Traditional encyclopedias thatare not open source would be equally insufficient for these purposes.

That doesn't mean, though, that Wikipedia is not an outstanding reference resource when used appropriately with an understanding of its strengths and limitations. Even in higher ed, it's often quite suitable as a ready-reference resource and also serves to seed further exploration and examination of original sources that are often cited in article bodies.

Over the course of a semester or year, students should be exposed to a variety of information resources, and they should understand when each is appropriate for a given purpose.

To take one thing out of context and condemn an entire category of reference resources that is generally held in relatively high esteem by manydistinguished colleagues in library and information science seems extreme.

And here is the second:

With all due respect, and I mean that sincerely, I don't think we can afford to be complacent about the changes that are occurring in online ready reference and the profound impact the read/write web has on our understanding of how information is mediated. Authority is important and students need to understand it. But it may not always be the best or only way to evaluate information resources.

Tomorrow, 5/31/2007 is a blue moon, say some. That would be the second full moon in a calendar month, according to conventional wisdom.

Today on NPR, I heard that Sky and Telescope finally 'fessed up about their complicity in fostering this wrong notion about the meaning of 'blue moon.' They tracked it back to an article originally published in Sky and Telescope that referenced an authoritative source (meaning that the sources were identified and deemed authoritative) dating to 1985. Sky and Telescope now spin it this way, "Where the authors, Margo McLoone-Basta and Alice Siegel, got it, no one seemed to know. Used in this way, the term was certainly very, very local before they included it in their book. It seemed never to have been written down before. Of course, authors sometimes "invent" information to protect themselves against plagiarists. Well, if that were the case they'd already lost, because the new "blue Moon" almost immediately entered the folklore of the modern world. It became as living a meaning as any of its predecessors."

Today alone, the Wikipedia article on Blue Moon [astronomical phenomenon] has been updated nearly a dozen times to reflect the new information. The article provides original source links to today's Sky and Telescope printed retraction and other sources reflecting scholars' interpretations of the phrase. There are a dozen citations and external links.

In contrast, searching Blue Moon in the University of Arizona's very expensive and restricted subscription to the Academic Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica references 94 articles on the query, none of which has anything to do with the blue moon topic in question. Restricting it to the phrase "blue moon" narrows the field to 13, not a single one of which is relevant. Linked articles to the phrase range from "beer" to "Mel Torme" to "Credence Clearwater Revival."

Telling students to "just say no" to Wikipedia does as much good as telling them to just say no to sex or drugs. They're perfectly capable of looking up Blue Moon both in Wikipedia and EB, and they will. We can peer down disapprovingly of their naiveté and insist on academic purity, but I think we owe them better than that. If we don't address the current environment honestly, take the time to understand it ourselves, and work with students to help them navigate it confidently, appropriately and with the requisite skepticism, we've failed.

Students today need to deal with a sea change in how information is collected, stored and accessed. As educators and information specialists, we need to mediate, not castigate. Authority is only one metric used to evaluate information resources. Today's students are tomorrow's information workers who will be using wikis and other community-based information resources and collaborative software along with both traditional and 21 st century tools to build the next generation of information resources.

Let's make sure we provide them with the analytical and higher order thinking skills to manage and use them effectively and work with them to bring them to a level of competence as knowledgeable consumers and creators of society's archive.

What do you think? Let me know!

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