July 25th, 2008

“Written by experts” – Always an interesting phrase. What does it mean?

In a University setting we tend to define expertise according to scholarly credentials, research and publishing experience. To find experts, we can simply go to the library, look for peer reviewed articles, see who cites who and use our subject knowledge to evaluate accordingly.

On the wider Internet, however, expertise isn’t so clear-cut.

There have been a few interesting links this week on the issue of online credibility.

  • James Grimmelmann wrote a really good essay on the inherent biases and business objectives of Google results.
  • Opposing Views is a new website that pits “experts” from opposite sides of an issue against each other. For instance “Universal Healthcare?” pits the Physicians for a National Health Program against Pacific Research Institute. My favorite part of the debates are the Evidence sections, where they have to support their views with outside sources. (For a more robust version of this kind of service, see our CQResearcher database, which Sommer wrote about back in November.)

  • Piggybacking on Erin’s entry, The Chronicle had an article called “U. of California Researchers Hold Wikipedia Authors Accountable” introducing a new color-coded system for judging author reliability. Here’s a link to another report.

My thought:

Credible authors still don’t make up for the fact that Wikipedia is a secondary source. It may be a good place ideas and brainstorming; but never worthy of referencing for your scholarly research papers.

What do you think?

— Erika


Comment from Sue
Time July 25, 2008 at 10:29 pm

I still think there are better places to use as a starting point than Wikipedia. The good thing about using a database like CQResearcher as a starting point is that you get multiple views of the issue. When using Wikipedia as a starting point, it doesn’t encourage seeking out alternative opinions. Many will see one and agree with it and find what will confirm it. I know the librarians tell doctoral students that it is good as a starting point and I respectfully disagree with that. Wikipedia does not encourage advanced thinking.

Comment from Erin Brothen
Time July 28, 2008 at 10:25 am

CQ Researcher is a great tool for learning about contemporary issues. Other great background resources in the library include Gale Reference, Credo Reference, and PsycBOOKS. Many of these are specialized resources that quickly distill an academic subject into a few paragraphs.

When you are looking for the most basic information, Wikipedia can provide the right launching point. What are the names of Erik Erikson’s major theories? When was the Crimean War? Who started Facebook?

I’ll be posting about the proper use of Wikipedia for background information later today.

Comment from Erika
Time July 29, 2008 at 8:28 am

Thanks Sue – good points all around.

Comment from Sue
Time July 29, 2008 at 9:33 am

I had posted in one of my classes. One of the other students posted that she had read on Wikipedia an opposing viewpoint (she stated the viewpoint). I mentioned gently that Wikipedia is probably not the best source of information for a discussion. She stated that she just got back from Colloquium and the librarians stated that it was a good starting point. Maybe she felt that since she didn’t cite it, she didn’t use it as a reference? But it was used as a reference in a post. Maybe she is afraid of databases. I don’t know. But that is why I have a strong reaction to using Wikipedia for anything academic. I use it to find out what happened in a movie that I don’t want to see or what sort of internet April Fool’s jokes are going around. For Erik Erickson theories, Organizational theories, or even the Crimean War, I would go to a good encyclopedia (and in the first two cases, a Psychology and Business encyclopedias.)

Comment from Sommer
Time July 29, 2008 at 10:15 am

Sue, thank you for posting about your classmate’s comment. While she quoted us (the librarians) correctly that Wikipedia is a good “starting point,” by citing it in her discussion post she was using it as her “ending point.”

“Starting point” means you’re using it for background information. This means you’d go to Wikipedia to gather some keywords, names of theorists and theories, and any other information that will help you formulate an effective search strategy in the Library databases. But you wouldn’t write down any quotes or pieces of information to use in your paper.

Your classmate didn’t use Wikipedia for background information, but as THE resource backing up her discussion post. Wikipedia information will help you formulate your search strategy with quick background information, but that’s as far as it should be used.

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