A Note on Research Rigor (or, What To Do About Wikipedia?)

Since this blog is academic in nature, I thought a good first post would be on citation, facts, and the reliability of information. [If you found that first sentence to be incredibly boring, feel free to skip the rest and wait for my next post! If it  got you excited, read on!]

Having taught university-level mathematics for six years, one of my pet peeves is sloppy citation and/or use of resources in research writing. Those of you in similar careers know how common it has become for students to use Wikipedia (or worse, unanalyzed Google search results) as the primary source in their papers. In spite of that, I’m only partially opposed to the use of “low-energy” (read: easy-to-find) Internet sources like this. Certainly, I think that Wikipedia should not be considered a reputable source in peer-reviewed, research publications. However, studies have also shown (see herehere, and if you like circularity, here) that much of the information on Wikipedia is accurate and reliable.

Given this conundrum, I imagine that the general reaction to Wikipedia in academic circles has been something along these lines:

I use the Wikipedia a lot. It is a good starting point for serious research, but I would never accept something that I read there without checking. —Bill Thompson [from the BBC]

I think Thompson is overstating things here. For example, when I read on Wikipedia that John F. Kennedy was born in 1917, or that Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, or that Prince William is the second in line for the British throne, I accept it without checking. Obviously, there are places where one should be more skeptical (for example, pages related to current events or controversial topics can be dodgy, at least for a time).

Since this is a blog, and not a academic research journal, I’m going to cite Wikipedia on occasion. Here’s one reason why:

“I think the trick is to know when you can rely on Wikipedia—I mean if you want to know who were all the guys in Humble Pie who weren’t Peter Frampton, who but Wikipedia is going to know that?” —Geoff Nunberg, linguist at UC Berkeley [on NPR’s Fresh Air]

Truth. Lots of obscure things can be found quickly and accurately. Lest we begin quoting from Wikipedia willy-nilly, however, consider:

“[Wikipedia] is pretty good, but you have to be careful with it. It’s good enough knowledge, depending on what your purpose is.” —Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia [from The Chronicle]

So, while I won’t use any hard and fast rules about citation, I will try to be careful about it. And while this post has turned into a scholarly analysis of Wikipedia, I’ll try to be equally careful about other sources. Finally, be aware that, in the interests of time (every post could turn into a huge research paper if I’m not careful), I may occasionally cite something without checking it as rigorously as I might do in another forum.

Of course, if I get anything phenomenally wrong, please point it out in the comments—I’ll try to address mistakes as I go. Come back soon to read my future posts!

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One thought on “A Note on Research Rigor (or, What To Do About Wikipedia?)

  1. Arguably, I guess, we shouldn’t accept anything we read in one source without checking it. And once we start thinking this way, Wikipedia seems as good as any other source. After all, there are errors in peer-reviewed journal articles, too.

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