Wikipedia is good for academia

“Wikipedia is good for academia,” declares historian Eric Rauchway in The New Republic (free registration required to read), comparing the growth of open source documents on the internet to the coffee-house intellectual culture of the 17th century.

Rauchway’s article highlights Middlebury College in Vermont, which has banned students from citing Wikipedia in their essays. The college says Wikipedia can be inaccurate because of its open source nature.

Rauchway argues that, firstly, college students shouldn’t be relying solely on encyclopedias but on sources closer to the events; and secondly, that peer-reviewed studies have shown that Wikipedia does not contain significantly more errors than a certain commercial encyclopedia.

Academics, to the barricades! You have nothing to lose but your publishers, and a Wiki to gain.

Eric Rauchway’s home page is here and his blog (mostly about his courses) is here.

3 responses to “Wikipedia is good for academia

  1. It occurred to me last night that we have a lot of different expertise on open source/open access issues right here on campus.

    Jon Eisen, Genome Center, is an evangelist of “open access” scientific journals and is on the editorial board of PLoS Biology.
    Eric Rauchway in the history department says Wikipedia is good for academia, and in fact needs academics to contribute articles.
    Prem Devanbu and Vladimir Filkov in Computer Science are studying how open source software products are built, and why OS is a more efficient process than closed systems.
    Anand Swaminathan and Greta Hsu in the Graduate School of Management are interested in networks and organizational behavior, and are collaborating with Devanbu and Filkov.
    I could go on with people who are interested in things like networks, self-organizing systems and emergent behavior, but I think you get the point. Seems like there’s enough there for a symposium, or an initiative, or something.

  2. This is an interesting one for biologists in particular to consider. Considering the huge amount of research (both good and bad) being produced in this field, it begs the question of how effective is the hive mind at evaluating difficult topics like molecular biology? Biology grad students like myself are not exactly adverse to hanging out in the world of wikis, but as my adviser often says, “If Benjamin Lewin says it, it’s right.” So, in the case of bio, I think it’s definitely worth questioning the quality of peer review in open-source projects.

  3. It depends who is in the hive. I wouldn’t expect economists, physicists or hair stylists to evaluate original research in molecular biology, or vice versa. But within their own fields, those people can and do evaluate each other’s work — that’s pretty much how science is supposed to work. Once a research paper is published, the ‘hive mind’ decides if and how it fits into the existing body of knowledge, or indeed changes it. Sometimes important work gets ignored for a long time and rediscovered later. Sometimes it gets attention right away. One of the paradoxes of science, I think, is that you are both building on the previous body of knowledge — “standing on the shoulders of giants” — and potentially undermining that knowledge, because it might well be wrong. Lewin might be right a lot of the time, but he may also be wrong.

    The physics/math community have a bit of a different process because their papers are usually posted online as preprints before being formally published, and the papers are available to read and may be modified up to the point of publication.

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