Wikipedia and EBP in academia and speech and language therapy/pathology

When you tell your students that they should not be citing Wikipedia in their essays, or even just using Wikipedia as a search tool, are the reasons you give evidence based?

Wikipedia = Reliable?After completing my first week of teaching at my new University I was led to do some research into ‘accuracy of Wikipedia’ after it has become clear that the students here seem to make use of technology within classes to a greater extent that I had previously experienced back in the UK. In one particular session where the students were working in groups it was not long before I heard reference made to Wikipedia as a source of information and then not long after this I saw another student actively scrolling through some information on the web-based “anyone can edit” encyclopaedia. Now, students (the vast majority anyway) so appear to be aware that their lecturers don’t like them to be citing Wikipedia in essays and such – I have explicitly dissuaded students from doing so myself. The reason I, and I’m sure many others give is generally along the lines of ‘you can’t trust the information to be reliable as it’s not written by ‘experts’ – anyone who wishes to do so can write anything about anything and so how can it be accurate to the level required at University?’

So, I was starting to think that the following week I’d introduce a ban on the use of Wikipedia in order to encourage students to search for information through more reliable sources. But then I thought that actually I didn’t know myself whether these claims about accuracy (or inaccuracy) were themselves to be trusted as I’ve just been going from what other people have said. So I wondered whether any firm research had been done to really investigate this. My first port of call was Google and with a huge sense of inevitability the first search result after inputting the string ‘reliability of Wikipedia’ was an article entitled Reliability of Wikipedia on Wikipedia. So this seemed like as good a place to start as any and the page summarises a few studies that generally have tended to find that: in comparison to other encyclopaedias, Wikipedia is fairly comparable in terms of accuracy of information, although it suffers occasionally from poor structure and writing making some information difficult to correctly interpret. The pieces of research were cited are from various sources including computing magazines, newspapers and peer-reviewed journals (a study in 2005 reported in Nature no less). reading further down the page there is another interesting stub entitled ‘information loop‘ which states:

“Criticism and concerns have been expressed about other sources (such as newspapers) which silently use Wikipedia as a reference source. The danger is that if the original information in Wikipedia was false, the fact that it has been reported in other media means that there is now a reliable source to reference the false information in Wikipedia, giving it apparent respectability. This in turn increases the likelihood of the false information being reported in other media” (Accessed here, 26th July 2012)

Now I’m not sure how often ‘reliable’ news sources would adopt such practices but given some of the activities that have recently come to light with regard to practices in print journalism in the UK then perhaps nothing would be surprising.

ReliableNaturally, being the aspiring evidence based practitioner my search did not end with this one article, as needless to say, there may have been a potential for bias (!) So I rapidly logged onto Web of Science/Knowledge which is my information database of choice as it tends to overlap behaviourally sciences and health sciences to the extent that had been necessary for much of my PhD-related research. Same search string entered: reliability of Wikipedia (searching for any combination of the three words ‘reliability’, ‘in’ and ‘Wikipedia’ as opposed to the term ‘reliability of Wikipedia‘ within the search field of topic as opposed to the title, i.e. so the search was conducted across the full text of the articles as opposed to words used just in the titles of articles) and 21 results returned with publication dates between December 2006 and June 2012 (so this seemingly did not pick up on the study by nature).

Here is (probably my biased selection) of some of the article titles and what I gleaned from a brief review:

Medical students’ reliance on Google and Wikipedia for biomedical inquiries

  • Concludes that greater emphasis should be placed on information literacy to expedite students’ skills development in finding quality information

Young adults’ credibility assessment of Wikipedia

  • Another very interesting article which emphasises how users who recognise the limitations of Wikipedia can make most effective use of the site. This also makes further reference and discussion of the information loop mentioned above and provides a conclusion:
  • Because many Web users have an opportunity to contribute and structure information online, the Web is potentially empowering for individuals and communities (Benkler 2006). Wikipedia is an example of a successful user‐generated content project because it has attracted a vast number of contributors and millions of regular readers. The site’s success in attracting visitors, some of whom may not be aware of how its content is authored or the implications of this type of authorship, may pose challenges to educators and technology designers who are making efforts to prevent users from falling prey to misinformation” (p13)
  • The article also refers to another useful resource: 7 things you should know about Wikipedia

Reputation and reliability in collective goods: the case of the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia

  • Concludes that Wikipedia shows good reliability from both committed contributors (‘zealots’) who are generally motivated by reputation and those who contribute infrequently (‘good Samaritans’) and often anonymously.

So, now that I’m in a position where I’ve conducted some (albeit modest) unbiased research on the reliability of Wikipedia, I may be left questioning exactly why I and many others warn students away from citing it in essays. However, it makes perfect sense to do so, if your reasons for doing so are justifiable as clearly the argument that ‘information in Wikipedia is unreliable’ is clearly debatable, if not verging on myth prompted by its own information loop.


About chrissp1980
Currently a lecturer in speech pathology in North Queensland, Australia. I'm lecturing in acquired disorders of speech and language and also attempting to enthuse students in conducting clinically-relevant projects using principles of Evidence-Based Practice. Wish me luck!

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