In defense of wikipedia

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Technology for Everyone . . .*

In Defense of Wikipedia**
Diane Murley***

Ms. Murley explains how Wikipedia articles are created and edited and how to use Wikipedia’s tools to evaluate articles. She argues that research instructors should teach students to use Wikipedia properly, rather than trying to convince them not to use it. Finally, she suggests ways in which Wikipedia can be used tohelp teach the importance of evaluating sources.

Introduction
¶1 I was teaching a workshop on cost-effective research, and we were discussing

free and low-cost alternatives to the expensive resources the students were accustomed to. Someone asked about Wikipedia. I told them that I liked it, but that most librarians and professors did not. One of the students responded, “Yeah, what’s upwith that?” ¶2 Her question gave me a nice segue into a discussion of the proper use of secondary resources and the importance of evaluating sources before relying on them. But later I realized that I hadn’t completely answered her question. Why do so many of us tell students to avoid Wikipedia, rather than teaching them how to use it responsibly? Wikipedia has weaknesses that can make citing to it abad idea. However, if those weaknesses are recognized and evaluated, it is an excellent place to begin researching certain questions. Furthermore, Wikipedia can be an excellent resource for teaching students about evaluating their sources. ¶3 There are several reasons to teach students how to use Wikipedia and other popular web sites, rather than simply telling them not to use them. First of all,they are going to use Wikipedia no matter how many people tell them not to use it. It’s easy to use, freely available, and students find helpful information in it often enough to reinforce their belief in Wikipedia.

* Editor’s Note: “Technology for Everyone” is a regular feature of Law Library Journal. In each article, author Diane Murley reviews a tool that can help law librarians do theirjobs even better. To supplement her articles Ms. Murley posts ideas for using technology to improve or expand law library services on her Technology for Law Libraries blog, http://tech4lawlibs.blog.asu.edu. ** © Diane Murley, 2008. *** Web Services Coordinator and Reference Librarian, Ross-Blakley Law Library, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona.

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Law Library Journal

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¶4 But more importantly, Wikipedia really is a good resource for some information.1 On more than one occasion, when I have been looking for some elusive bit of information, I have turned to Wikipedia and quickly found a link or reference to a reputable source that answered the question. I think I have an obligation to teach students how to use such avaluable resource. ¶5 Of course, not all Wikipedia searches return valuable information, and it is important to teach students how to evaluate what they find. In this article, I will provide some background on how Wikipedia articles are written, explain how they can be better evaluated, and point out some Wikipedia articles that can be used to help teach resource evaluation.

About Wikipedia
¶6Wikipedia was launched in January 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger,

who were looking for ways to supplement Nupedia, a project to produce a free, peer-reviewed encyclopedia.2 Wikipedia is written and edited almost entirely by volunteers, a collaborative process that has proved to be a more effective way to create a free, web-based encyclopedia.3 Nupedia has since been abandoned.4 ¶7 As ofMarch 2008, Wikipedia comprised more than nine million articles in more than 250 languages, including over two million articles in English.5 Wikipedia claims 75,000 contributors are regular editors.6 A core group of about 1000 has special administrative powers to enforce conformity with guidelines and policies.7 ¶8 Virtually anyone can edit an existing Wikipedia article without even creating an...
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