Philippa Thomas Online

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Academics “embrace” Wikipedia – shock!


Interesting piece on the BBC website today about students at Imperial College London trying to “bridge” the worlds of academia and Wikipedia. They seem very sensibly to be saying – Wikipedia isn’t going away – Wikipedia is just about the world’s most used research resource – why not bring academic brains to the task of improving rather than scorning the open source encyclopaedia?

I’ve seen both sides of our schizophrenic approach to Wikipedia. As students in Nicco Mele’s Harvard Kennedy School class on Digital Media, Politics and Power, we learned how to use and analyse and edit Wikipedia pages. As a student in a third grade class in the Cambridge public school system, my son was told “never” to use the site – it wasn’t “proper” knowledge.

I get that. Eight year olds are looking for “facts” they can sweep into their course work – they haven’t yet been taught to check & double check sources, to go through a Wikipedia article to the footnotes – they probably haven’t been taught how to use Google or how to search through a real bricks-and-mortar library for the soundest sources of up to date information. I’d be pretty upset as a parent if my eight year old thought Wikipedia was the fount of all knowledge.

But demonising Wikipedia won’t work. It’s massively used and it’s in all our interests to make it massively better.

Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 30 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, psychology, reading, trekking, and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, coaching @positivecoachi3, and life & travel on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

4 thoughts on “Academics “embrace” Wikipedia – shock!

  1. Its a really interesting debate as last year I completed a Masters degree at University of Cape Town and we found the same ambivalence about the use of sources such as Wikipedia and Google Images – the online world is confusing academics – I agree with the postulate that its not going to go away so lets make it better!

  2. Pingback: Academics “embrace” Wikipedia – shock! (via Philippa Thomas Online) | Urban Choreography

  3. yes, well… a contentious topic about which I have mixed feelings. There is a theory from the early days of space syntax research due to Julienne Hanson, if I remember correctly: the more ‘open’ a system, the more prone to abuse by those with the knowledge of the system. Her example was the school playground, a space which in comparison to the classroom had relatively few rules and restrictions. Here the bully could make use of their spatial understanding to exert power.

    Now it seems to me that Wikipedia has some of these properties – it is open to all to say what they want, but it is equally open to abuse. People can use the fact that they can edit pages to promote their own interpretations and disinformation (it has been known). Certainly the theory is that this will then get amended by the ‘wisdom of the crowd’, but the problem is that when paradigms are being broken the crowd is predominantly from the prior paradigm. There is therefore a real risk of conservatism in the model….

    Just a thought.

  4. Perhaps the real issue is that we’ve never had these opportunities before.

    Power and learning have only ever been in the hands of the wealthy/influential. Only in the past few hundred years was schooling opened to the masses. But even then the snobbery around original thought prevented lower classes from doing well.

    If they did well, they had to do exceptionally well and were bullied as a result because they were poor.

    As much as the online passing of information poses a threat to society, it also liberates certain elements. The fact anyone can be a journalist through blogging (and that’s no reference to the author who is indeed time-served!) makes ‘traditional’ standards sit up and take note.

    Currently there is an attempt to revolutionise medical academic learning by opening up the writing and editing of journals to anyone with an issue. For these qualified medical professional academics to be open to debate is an absolute revolution. Post-publication revision encourages the progress of original and diverse thought faster than the prolonged pre-published models that have always existed.

    That is vital for accurate modern interpretations. A pronounced failure of pre-publication revision is that when research is commissioned and doesn’t fulfil the expectations of the governments or corporations that have paid money for such, the work is never published. In some cases this is vital for exposing the ineptitude of certain governmental policies or extortion by multinationals.

    The sooner anyone can expose evidence so it can be properly discussed by people without vested interest, the sooner the Illuminati will fade away and bad novels will no longer be written…

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