The SBL Forum on Wikipedia

So, I’ve been reading the SBL Forum for fun recently. I was going through the archives and came upon this article. I have to admit that I am partial to Wikipedia. Not because I think it is the most accurate thing ever written, but because it brings up some great questions about publishing in the future. Sometimes I think that the entrenched scholars view Wikipedia similar to how scribes must have viewed the printing press: with great fear and trepidation.

Having read the article, there are some good points. I would certainly never use Wikipedia in a graduate level paper. There is too much chance of incorrect information. I might use Wikipedia to find more scholarly information. Some of the articles are very well cited. In all honesty, anyone who has one iota of critical thinking skill should be able to quickly assess if a Wikipedia article is anywhere near trustworthy. If it doesn’t have any sources at the bottom of the page, please click to another page. On the other hand, Wikipedia has the potential to bring together a diverse group of people with varying perspectives on issues. These varying perspectives can work to cancel each other out and come up with a neutral article that seeks to be bias free. I’ve personally found Wikipedia to be incredibly helpful – especially in the realm of technology. A quick read of Wikipedia’s entry for Hacker might have been beneficial to the author of the SBL Forum article. I’m still confused as to what she was trying to get at by bringing up the term, other than to try to say that hackers vandalize things. Which is, of course, a complete misunderstanding of the term.

I also found it interesting that the old argument of “it might be gone tomorrow” was brought up. Yes, Wikipedia changes – so do most other websites. At least in the format used for papers at Davis, students were expected to include the date the website was accessed in the works cited, if they had used any websites for their research. In all honesty, that’s not worth much for most websites. If they change it is unlikely that there is an archive, other than the Wayback Machine, which is hardly ideal. However, with Wikipedia you have access to virtually every incarnation of the article – ever. Knowing the date the article was accessed would allow anyone to go and verify that the article did say a certain thing and did cite its sources on that date.

There are legitimate concerns about Wikipedia. Because anyone can edit it articles can be defaced or falsified. One cannot expect to have the latest research on a topic, because no original research is allowed (which is not dissimilar from other encyclopedias). However, I do think Wikipedia can serve as a type of search engine for scholarly pursuits. If one finds an article that is well cited on Wikipedia, that article might lead to more respected sources that one could use in a scholarly paper. Alternatively, Wikipedia can help someone initially exploring a topic to attain a broad overview in a short amount of time. Obviously, facts must be verified – but facts must be verified in a book one reads as well. I have plenty of books I would never dream of citing in a paper. But they are published.

In conclusion, I agree that Wikipedia is not the best source to be citing in a research paper. However I disagree with some of the specific conclusions of the SBL Forum article, namely: “Where in some settings cooperative websites may be beneficial, there is nothing to support Wikipedia as beneficial for student research.” As stated above, Wikipedia can be used as a gateway to more respected sources on things. In that way, it can be beneficial for student research. That greater issue is that students who didn’t even realize Wikipedia could be edited by other people should perhaps not be writing research papers at all. All sources must be viewed critically – not only sources that are published via new methods. Students need to be taught to verify their sources in some way before throwing them into a research paper. Obviously peer-reviewed journals are a good place to start. Books from respected/trusted authors would also be good. Going and reading the original source that someone cites for yourself would be even better. In fairness, the article does conclude that others should compare the differing values of open and closed systems of publication and information dissemination.

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