Three Wikipedias?

It really bothers me when I see engineering students working on homework that rely upon computer-based references for equations. Not that I am trying to be an old codger and splash waves among current generations of students, but I remember how important it used to be to use and cite references. And yes, I had to walk up hill in the winter to school as I grew up in South Dakota (so there is some credence to that thought). One of the reasons it bothers me is because the material taken from printed materials often has been reviewed by at least one other person with known credentials. I was taught that we use research and reviewed materials to assemble texts and build upon a continuously evolving base of knowledge. So, does the Web remove the ability to filter and back-check information? I think the answer is obvious - of course! I entered a dispute with a recent lecturer of mine that was somewhat related to this topic. We were talking about the focus of graduate work, the importance of publications, and how books utilized research. When I mentioned it was a goal of mine to publish he said "...I don't care about papers and publishing....I think the process if worthless...I only care about making money...". Could this thought be part of a complacent view that moves education to quick answers and possibly lower standards of quality?

Online research as risky as online dating?

Let us compare searching the Web for technical answers to seeking out a date on the Web. Could it possibly be that if you were to seek out a date on the Web, that one would be concerned about looks and would therefore seek out pictures before going on a date? How about when looking for an equation online? If you enter enough terms you are bound to find something along the lines of thought that you are investigating. But say, when you sit down at the dinner table and you find out that the sightly match of your dreams has a tone of voice of the wrong sex, you just might not feel comfortable finishing your veggies at dinner no matter how much vino you imbibe! So what if you use a faulty assumption with a Reynolds number that leads you to incorrectly design your fluids systems? Ooops... I guess. Hopefully no one is going to install it. Getting down to the heart of the matter, one solution might be having to cite three references and compare the principles as presented (just as I had to do not that many years ago). Does that mean we need to have three Wikipedias?! I hope not.

What do you think of using Wikipedia for homework?


ehorahan's picture

Great piece, Cory! You raise a really good point. To Answer the Wikipedia question: I have had professors clearly specify that Wikipedia cannot be used as a reputable source for papers or projects - and I agree. The scary thing is that even though this was specified clearly, a member of my project group not only used Wikipedia but copied and pasted entire paragraphs from it... without citing it... It was an uphill battle explaining that not only was Wikipedia not to be used but that plagarism was not acceptable either.

Douglas Clark's picture

Online research is fantastic, but like any tool, one has to know how and when to use it. If looking to gauge opinion or simply collect ideas about a particular subject, nearly any source online might be just fine. But when looking for hard facts, the list of trustworthy online sources quickly diminishes. That's an important lesson for anyone to learn, regardless of their field or discipline.

May's picture

I share the same sentiment as Douglas. I think we should leverage the internet and online resources to provide us a list of credible sources. Just because the data is more accessible doesn't mean that we should reduce our time and effort in ensuring we have proof to support the claims!

Cory Jensen's picture

I have even tracked down or looked up references when I visit the wiki site, they are often very helpful and informative as well. Referencing is key, I have even found when iterating technical proposals in the hopes to solicit thoughts that if I haven't completely referenced passages or sections, it can confuse readers or my collaborators.

Aurian's picture

Great post, Cory. I agree that although Wikipedia is great for crowd-sourced information (which some might argue is the same as a peer-review), it cannot be a replacement for referencing. Since there is no way to confirm the credentials of those reviewing the online material, it is necessary to use online sources as the starting point with a view to confirming via published texts or papers. That said, the proper skeptic still wouldn't take the published information as a given truth either!