As I am spending more time in the classroom this semester, I am constantly dealing with the question of Wikipedia, the encyclopedia anyone can edit. As part of my starting the Information Literacy program with students, I ask them if they have been told that they can't use Wikipedia. Invariably, they say yes. Then I ask them why they think that is. Invariably, they say that it is because anyone can edit it. Because professors think it is unreliable. Because professors, wrongly they say, think it isn't worthwhile.
Students get pretty riled up about it.
The reason I don't want students to use Wikipedia is not because anyone can edit it. As a matter of fact, the more time I spend on Wikipedia, the more articles I read, the more changes I track, the more I learn about the technology, the more I believe in the democratization of information, the more I think that an encyclopedia anyone can edit is cool. Very cool.
But I still don't want students to use Wikipedia for their academic research papers. I don't want students to use any encyclopedias as a resource of an academic research paper. Encyclopedias, I tell students, are starting places. They are a great place to familiarize yourself with a topic, to identify keywords, key events, key issues, key players. But going to a summarization of a topic and its issues is not research. You, or your parents, aren't paying all this money for you to look stuff up in an encyclopedia and call it a day.
Students are hear to hone their critical thinking, writing, reading, and analytical skills. They are here to do dig deeper into what they learn in encyclopedia entries, electronic or print, edited by anyone or by the elite.
Much like Kim Leeder points out in this post from the ACRLblog (ACRL=Association of College and Research Libraries), a few years ago I took a different tack on Wikipedia. But it has changed and so have I. I think Wikipedia will continue to improve and continue to flourish, especially if Aaron Swartz gets his way and connects the Open Library with Wikipedia.
So where does Wikipedia belong in the research process: as a place to start it. But it is just that: a starting place. It does not belong on a Works Cited page. But it can surely be a useful resource in figuring out what does.