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Students debate value of Wikipedia as reliable source

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Since its introduction in 2001, Wikipedia has grown to host more than 19 million articles with 82,000 contributors in more than 270 languages. Wikipedia has 400 million unique viewers each month as of March 2011, According to ComScore, an Internet marketing research company that provides marketing data to large Internet businesses.

With so many people reading what Wikipedia has to offer, is this source something students can rely on when it comes to their studies?

CSUN students have varied thoughts as to whether Wikipedia is something they should be able to use for school purposes.

Approximately 30 percent of students surveyed said they always consult Wikipedia at some point during their course-related research, according to a study done in 2010 by the University of Washington’s Project Information Literacy (PIL).

“I think students should use it,” said Alain Perez-Cordova, a senior studying history.  “It usually gives you a pretty good idea of what it is you are looking up.”

With its availability online, Wikipedia has become a valuable source in terms of immediacy. Students are unable to simply pull out copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica just took look up specific dates and information, he added.

The PIL research also showed that 82 percent of the students surveyed mainly used Wikipedia because they wanted to obtain some sort of summary first before diving into their own research, while only 17 percent of them thought it was more credible than other websites.

“It’s pretty accurate, generally speaking,” said Carlos Bouchat, a junior studying radiologic technology at CSUN. Despite his belief in the accuracy of information found on Wikipedia, Bouchat acknowledges that the website may not be entirely credible.

“[To] use it as your source I would say no, because of the fact that anyone can write on there,” he said

The PIL research also concluded that 52 percent of respondents admitted to being frequent Wikipedia users, even if an instructor advised against it. Erik Goldner, history professor at CSUN, advises students to be wary of open-ended websites such as Wikipedia. Since the entries found on Wikipedia can be added and edited by any user, it may not be the best source when it comes to school, he added.

Goldner also advises students to navigate the site carefully and learn how to distinguish fact from fiction.

“One of the dangers of Wikipedia is that students are maybe not critical enough of what is there,” Goldner said.  “One-stop shopping makes for a lazy historian, and I think history students need to strengthen their research skills.”

Some students agree with what Goldner has to say about Wikipedia and believe that the site should be used as more of a reference with hobbies, and not as a reference for school.

“I’ll use it to get a general idea of what I’m researching, but I won’t use it as a source,” said Marlon Henriquez, a CTVA senior at CSUN.

And 22 percent of students said they rarely use Wikipedia, if at all, according to the PIL study.

Art major Chyenne DeWitt falls under this category and shares Henriquez’s belief in not using the website as a scholarly source.

“I’ve been on there and checked things and have found many inaccuracies,” DeWitt said.

Wikipedia is aware of the possible inaccuracies found on its articles, warning users from the start that not all entries are of encyclopedic quality and the articles may contain false or debatable information.

These inaccuracies are why most documents on Wikipedia are never considered complete, and they are continually edited and improved on over time. With this, Wikipedia generally sees results in an upward trend of quality and a growing consensus over neutral representation of information.

Wikipedia describes its ideal articles to be well-written, balanced, neutral and encyclopedic, containing comprehensive, notable, verifiable knowledge.

Despite the risk of obtaining false information, CSUN history professor Clementine Oliver is pro-Wikipedia and often turns to the resourceful website.

“I think that faculty often use Wikipedia, but don’t want to admit it,” he said. “They think there is some sort of shame involved.”

Oliver also thinks hypertext in Wikipedia is a great way to get a better understanding of a broad subject that needs to be covered and can be a great starting point for an open discussion in class.

Hypertext is text displayed on a computer that has references to other sites that a reader can immediately access, usually with a mouse click on a word, he said.

Kimberly Kirner, an anthropology teacher at CSUN, encourages using Wikipedia to get an overall familiarity of a topic.

“It’s not scholarly or accurate, but it gives you an idea of what the topic is about,” she said.

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