Commentary

Wikipedia, a Professor's Best Friend

October 13, 2014

Michael Gorman, a former president of the American Library Association, wrote some years ago that "a professor who encourages the use of Wikipedia is the intellectual equivalent of a dietitian who recommends a steady diet of Big Macs with everything." If that is true, I must be an intellectual fast-food vendor.

I am a professor who not only recommends that my students use Wikipedia but also encourages them to edit and develop it. However, I am in the clear minority in academia. Most professors treat Wikipedia with suspicion and contempt, if not open hatred.

Some of my colleagues’ negative feelings may be explained by the natural conservatism of academic circles or by their simply not understanding how Wikipedia works. Admittedly, many of their doubts are justified. Even though as early as 2005, Wikipedia was recognized as not having significantly more errors than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and although since then Wikipedia has significantly grown and improved, every now and then a spectacular blunder or an academic study shows that it is still far from perfect.

However, the real reasons for the general dislike of Wikipedia among scholars reach deeper. For one, academics used to have the monopoly on knowledge production. Now a bunch of digital Maoists create and manage knowledge without any remuneration or even asking for obvious credit. There has to be at least a little aversion to a project that is so effective in providing free what academics are paid to provide.

Second, Wikipedia spawns jealousy because it is one of the Internet’s most visited websites and has the type of readership of which any academic can only dream.

Finally, as we are all aware, students plagiarize liberally from Wikipedia. Even though it does not encourage plagiarism, many professors will find it guilty by association.

In spite of those reasons, academics should not hold a grudge against Wikipedia. Rather, they should engage more with the site as authors, editors, and coordinators of their students’ work, for the common benefit.

Fortunately, the first signs of a closer collaboration between academia and Wikipedia are already taking place: Both the American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association have started initiatives aimed at encouraging scholars and students to help develop the site.

We need more of that, because there are many good reasons to increase the use of Wikipedia at colleges. Writing a Wikipedia article is actually an excellent academic assignment: It requires synthesizing facts, teaches how to properly use third-party sources, and (as many students have learned the hard way) is resilient to plagiarism. Wikipedians, more watchful for signs of plagiarism than many journalists are, mercilessly delete quotations that can’t be verified.

Finding a topic that is not yet covered on Wikipedia is also a useful lesson in reviewing sources and a good exercise for finding research gaps. Such an assignment, instead of going to the shredder after being graded, stays online and remains useful for others, even if just as a starting point for a good article to be developed in the future. As a bonus, students take assignments with real-world impact more seriously. Even better, new articles on Wikipedia will often be reviewed by Wikipedians, reducing the amount of work for the professor.

One more point is worth considering. I believe that helping Wikipedia grow, as well as fostering its development, is a moral duty of all those privileged enough to attend college. Sharing knowledge with those who do not have easy access to it is the least we can do. The ethical obligation is even greater on the professoriate than on students themselves: After all, it is the professors whose engagement can make the crucial difference in student participation in a Wikipedia project.

Professors have tremendous resources at their disposal: hundreds of hours of students’ intellectual labor that would otherwise go toward projects that are socially unproductive and would become irrelevant after grading. Let’s have the courage to make Wikipedia development one of the default methods of college assignments. It will make our lives easier, make student work more challenging and interesting, and produce something useful for society.

Dariusz Jemielniak is a professor of management at Kozminski University, in Poland, a Wikimedia activist, and author of Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia (2014, Stanford University Press).