February 16, 2007
The Chronicle of Higher Education

Middlebury College History Department Limits Students' Use of Wikipedia

This spring students in history courses at Middlebury College will find a new disclaimer on syllabi warning them that, while Wikipedia is fine for some background research, it is not to be used as a primary source.

Members of the Vermont institution's history department voted unanimously in January to adopt the statement, which bans students from citing the open-source encyclopedia in essays and examinations.

"Whereas Wikipedia is extraordinarily convenient and, for some general purposes, extremely useful, it nonetheless suffers inevitably from inaccuracies deriving in large measure from its unique manner of compilation," the statement reads. "Students are responsible for the accuracy of information they provide, and they cannot point to Wikipedia or any similar source that may appear in the future to escape the consequences of errors."

The problem with Wikipedia, in many scholars' eyes, is its open editing system. The site permits unregistered, anonymous users to edit content alongside more traditionally qualified contributors. While several studies and informal surveys have found that Wikipedia is nearly as accurate as many hard-bound encyclopedias, professors often say the Web site's freewheeling nature makes it too easy for errors to be introduced.

Many professors around the country have already taken it upon themselves to post similar caveats on their syllabi or course Web sites. But few academic departments have managed to agree on a policy like Middlebury's.

The Chronicle spoke with Don J. Wyatt, chairman of the history department, about what the new policy means for students and what it might augur for Wikipedia.

Q. When did the history department decide it needed to codify an official policy against citing Wikipedia?

A. We'd been deliberating on Wikipedia for almost half a year, but what really tipped the balance was the fact that we found there were multiple instances of students' citing Wikipedia for the same misinformation. Wikipedia is very seductive: We all are sort of enamored of the convenience and speed of the Web. From the standpoint of access, it's a marvelous thing. But from the standpoint of maintaining quality, it's much less so.

Q. What is the department's stance on students' using Wikipedia as an entry point or as a way of finding other, more appropriate sources for citation?

A. We're on record as actually encouraging it for that purpose. To be honest, the original impetus behind our decision arose as an outcry from professors who wanted to preclude or prohibit students from using Wikipedia altogether. I personally resisted that. I believe that most educational decisions should be directed toward extending access and rights rather than restricting them.

Q. It seems as if it would be difficult to push students off the site altogether.

A. The real goal was to arrive at a policy that we could enforce. We decided that we didn't want to ban students from using a particular resource; we wanted them to be able to use it with greater discrimination and more discretion. I was also hesitant about fostering a kind of "open season" in which students were seeking to test such a ban by increasingly violating it. And I felt no compulsion to nurture such behavior by imposing a ban that was not enforceable from the outset.

Q. Supporters of Wikipedia, including the site's founder, Jimmy Wales, often say Wikipedia should not be used as a primary source, but they add that other encyclopedias should not be cited either. In your department's view, is citing Wikipedia analogous to citing Encyclopaedia Britannica?

A. I think Wikipedia is a different beast largely because it is open edited. That's not to say that students shouldn't be exposed to inaccurate views, but they should be instructed in making proper discriminations between what is accurate and what is inaccurate. I guess this calls to mind what Plato said in The Republic when he referred to democracy as "full of variety and disorder."

Q. Can you envision the department softening its stance on Wikipedia at any point down the road?

A. That's certainly not out of the question. In the end, our decision as one institution may have little impact. But if other institutions and departments within academe begin to take collective stands, that could have a very salutary effect in moving Wikipedia to impose a higher level of standards for the articles it has. Collective action, as opposed to action undertaken by individuals, is the better way.

Q. Do you and your colleagues in the history department use Wikipedia often?

A. Actually, many of us use it quite a bit. I happen to personally like Wikipedia, so this is not a personal stance or a hostile one. Wikipedia is a wonderful innovation, but it has its limits. Our job as educators is to make students aware of those limits, as well as the advantages.

Q. What is it about Wikipedia that keeps professors coming back?

A. The most valuable resources contained in most Wikipedia entries are the usually extensive and up-to-date bibliographies, which direct you to the products of peer review. There's nothing that ensures that a peer-reviewed source will be accurate in any kind of sacrosanct way, but the odds are better. When you're doing research, you definitely have to play the odds.

Copyright: Chronicle of Higher Education 2007
Section: Information Technology
Volume 53, Issue 24, Page A39