Cornell University

Catherwood Library

Catherwood Library, Ives Hall, 607-255-5435

Question of the Month

From the Catherwood Library reference librarians

April 2007

PLEASE NOTE: The Reference Question of the Month is kept current only during the month for which it was written. Archived questions will not be updated, and over time may contain inaccurate information or broken web links. We provide archived questions as a service, since much of the information will remain accurate and of continued interest to the ILR community.

Question: I heard that some college has banned the use of Wikipedia.  What's all the fuss about? 

Answer: Wikipedia bills itself as "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit" and has over 1,712,406 articles. Created in 2001, it is written as an open source, collaborative effort by volunteers. These volunteers do not have to be experts on a topic and indeed many people may contribute to any article. Catherwood Library has its own entry in Wikipedia, written by library staff. 

While many have hailed Wikipedia as the new wave of access to information, the open source model can be problematic. Alexander M.C. Halavais took on the pseudonym of Dr. al-Halawi , a visiting lecturer in law, Jesus College, Oxford University, and added 13 pieces of misinformation to articles. His misinformation was deleted within 3 hours by Wikipedia’s editors.

Wikipedia has a guide that explains how to use it for research, pointing out both strengths and weaknesses: Researching with Wikipedia

Recently there has been some discussion about whether or not Wikipedia should be used as a scholarly source. The History Department of Middlebury College will not accept students to use Wikipedia as a primary resource for their research. This cause quite a fuss in the media. Interestingly, the Middlebury History Department will not let students use the Encyclopedia Britannica either. An encyclopedia is a good place to begin certain research, but it should not be considered to be the final word on any topic. 

A new effort to use a similar model has resulted in Citizendium. This is how they describe themselves: The Citizendium (sit-ih-ZEN-dee-um), a "citizens' compendium of everything," is an open wiki project aimed at creating an enormous, free, and reliable encyclopedia. The project, started by a founder of Wikipedia, aims to improve on the Wikipedia model by adding "gentle expert oversight" and requiring contributors to use their real names. We have over 1,000 articles and hundreds of contributors.

Bottom line: ask your instructor before using a resource like Wikipedia in your research.

You should evaluate all material that you use for your scholarly research, regardless of the origin. Here is a list of criteria to use when looking at any information resource on the web. 

Authority

  • Who is the author?
  • What are their credentials in this subject area?
  • Can you identify/contact them?
  • Do they cite their sources?
  • What is the URL (org, edu,com, gov)?
  • What sites do they link to?
  • Who links to this site?

Purpose/Bias

  • What is the purpose of this site?
  • Who is the audience for this information?
  • Is the author connected to any particular organization, institution, association that might have a particular bias?
  • Are the facts accurate?
  • Can the facts be verified?

Timeliness

  • When was the site created?
  • Is it updated on a regular basis?
  • Is new content easily identified?
  • Does it matter - are you looking for accepted information or new material?

Reliability/Functionality/Style

  • Do the links on the site work?
  • Will the site be there the next time you visit it?
  • Is the site well organized, easy to navigate?
  • What is the response time?

— Researched by Debra Lamb-Deans