Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Wikipedia: Reflections on Use and Acceptance in Academic Environments

In the light of a workshop run by the Geological Society of London and Wikimedia UK, Brian Whalley reflects on the attitudes and practice of academia in respect of present-day Wikipedia content.

Wikipedia has become internationally known as an online encyclopaedia ('The Free Encyclopedia'). Developed by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger and launched in 2001 it has, to date, editions in 285 languages. Wikipedia is but one subset of the Web-based applications known as 'wikis'. The original wiki (as wikiwikiweb) was developed by Ward Cunningham in the 1990s as the least complex way of rapidly sharing and communicating 'information'. Wiki is Hawaiian for 'quick'; repeating the word is equivalent to adding 'very'. The significance of a wiki is that it can be added to, and be edited by, its users. Many specific types of 'wiki', for local or international use, have been developed within this software platform. Wales and Sanger's contribution, developed from a fore-runner, 'Nupedia'. However, although Nupedia had free content (that is, free cultural work), it had a complex vetting and review system for articles and Wales wanted something easier to add to and contribute to. Wikipedia was the result. If a word or phrase is 'googled' a searcher for information (if not wisdom) may well find that the Wikipedia entry comes high in the search engine's list. This ranking is subject to the algorithms used rather than the accuracy of the Wikipedia entry.   

Wikipedia in a Wicked World

Wikipedia is clearly a much-used resource in the world at large, but its use can induce apparent contempt in some academic circles. A sociological/anthropological study of the reasons many academics seem to despise, or ban it, from students use [1] would be interesting. Students may be told not to use it; yet many people, students and academics, do find it useful. Perversely perhaps, some users correct or add new entries to increase Wikpedia's range, depth, accuracy and utility (termed 'Wikipedians' in Wikimedia circles). 'Some people' here includes those who are not academics and perhaps who have no aspirations to be so, but does this mean their contributions are automatically less valuable? In this article I shall explore what the use of Wikipedia might mean for developing information and digital literacies in the Higher and Further Education domains [2][3].

Geological Society of London Initiative

Given the general academic reticence mentioned above, it was perhaps surprising that that the Geological Society of London (The 'Geol Soc' or GSL) organised a workshop in late March 2012 to encourage Fellows to write or edit Wikipedia entries [4]. Sixteen Fellows and colleagues from the Royal Society of Chemistry (across the court-yard at Burlington House in Piccadilly, London) met, together with members of Wikimedia UK to learn more about becoming a 'Wikipedian'.

First, Charles Matthews, of Wikimedia UK [5]  gave an introductory talk and led discussions about Wikipedia's 'Neutral Point of View', 'Verifiability', referencing and correcting entries. Some of those present had experience of editing entries, perhaps making small factual corrections, others had written the odd short ('stub') article.

Most, nonetheless, had only a basic user knowledge of Wikipedia. The workshop gave the opportunity of using a 'sandbox', or trial area, to produce entries under the helpful eyes of Wikimedia UK experts. However, most of the time was spent in discussion of how Wikipedia (and its editors) dealt with aspects such as updating, information quality and style of writing. I wish to explore in this article some of the implications of Wikipedia's use raised and its use by academics and academic institutions. My approach here is from a geological point of view, but the implications are related to digital and information literacies in general and their use in Further and Higher Education (FHE). I have also provided links to Wikipedia entries for readers who are interested.

Companion to the Earth?

Despite the statement above, it is actually not surprising that the GSL sponsored this workshop. It is one of few 'academic' societies that covers practitioners as well as researchers; oil exploration people as well as ophiolite [6] hunters. As such, the GSL appreciates that it is to Wikipedia that 'most' people turn for geological information – particularly it would seem, on volcanoes. Presumably, this is not just students researching for term papers but because of a general need to provide current information on topics of geological interest. A good topical example here is hydraulic fracturing ('fracking' [7][8]) . One of the participants in the GSL workshop had a professional interest in this topic of oil and gas extraction and the Society has just announced a public meeting to debate the issues involved. In the Wikipedia article on Fracking, there is the note at the head of the entry:

The neutrality of this article is disputed. Please see the discussion on the Talk page. Please do not remove this message until the dispute is resolved. (March 2012).

This caution is hardly news to Ariadne readers but I strongly suspect that the majority of 'academics' are unaware of this feature, the related 'Neutral Point of View' (NPOV), the log of notes of updates and discussion of changes in the 'Talk' section. They are aspects that are not apparent in a casual look but are worth a visit. In particular, the Neutral Point of View requirement is displayed, not only because the 'talk' [9] discussions show the technical aspects of the subject, but because they also demonstrate the way editors and contributors strive for coverage and NPOV. In these discussions they expose the controversial nature of the topic. Thus, far from imposing a distorted and static 'definition', Wikipedia reveals the struggle for coverage and balance. These are aspects that it may well be useful to show to students, rather than adopting the approach of  'don't use because it can be changed'. Students should, I contend, be shown these features quite specifically. To a large extent, these aspects of Wikipedia editing make it focused and academic, rather than free and easy, resource than many teachers believe it to be.

The 'fracking' Wikipedia entry displayed several changes during May and June 2012. My OUP, print-on-paper 'Oxford Companion to the Earth' (Hancock and Skinner, 2000) [10], has one line devoted to hydro-fracturing and nothing, as far as I can see, in the 'Petroleum' entry. A link from the Wikipedia entry goes to the 'Pages in category “Hydraulic fracturing” [11]'; with tabulated access to 12 further pages in this category. As it happens, the publisher recently contacted me, and presumably all the other authors, about my views on the need for changes of my entry. I shall not be inclined to make any alterations for any future print version. The instant cross-referencing and access that electronic databases can supply, together with updating and quality control of entries together the breadth of Wikipedia coverage shows it to be a natural, information-age, encyclopaedia which replaces print-on-paper versions. Not least, is the use of colour and animations in Wikipedia that is difficult to achieve in any print format.

My copy of the 'Oxford Companion to the Earth' was gratis, courtesy of the publishers as I wrote an entry. It now costs £50. I doubt if libraries would buy a new 'updated' edition for cost reasons, let alone for information content. One Amazon reviewer indicated in 2002: 'This book is nothing short of fantastic. As a qualified geologist, I have found few errors in this book”. Yet it also elicited the following remarks from another Amazon reviewer, 'However, the whole work is flawed by the numerous errors which litter the text and figures. Captions to some figures are missing or incomplete, chemical equations do not balance, chunks of text are missing'. Perhaps no further comment is necessary in the 'accuracy' debate as well as in absolute costs in providing up-to-date, as well as 'free' information. The fact that no original research (NOR) [12]  is allowed is neither here nor there, it can be referred to in references as would be the case for any encyclopaedia used as a starting point for further reading. For checking veracity of Wikipedia entries, there is the famous article by Giles (2005) in Nature [13] that compared Wikipedia entries with Britannica. For a more general set of statements see Terdiman on the subject [14].

Behind the Wikipedia Scenes

One of the most informative aspects of the GSL workshop was the look 'behind the scenes' at data in Wikipedia at WikiProject Geology [15].

This pages states that, 'The scope of WikiProject Geology is all articles in the Category: Geology [16]. Our particular interests are core Geology concepts and issues related to Geology articles.' The particular project goals are there stated as being to:

The 'look behind the scenes' at data shows many entries of interest to geoscientists to be ‘stubs’; ‘an article deemed too short to provide encyclopaedic coverage of a subject’. Figure 1 shows a table from the geology project, of geology articles assessed by quality (Stub leading to start status and categories to top-flight FA and FL classes [26]. The follow-up here would seem to be that geologists – of whatever standing – should update those areas of special interest or knowledge. This however is no light undertaking, although it is expected that entry modifications should generally be progressive and evolve rather than produce full blown contributions from scratch. However, the advent of several geoscientific Wikipedians would greatly enhance Wikipedia’s geological coverage, to the benefit of all.

Figure 1:   Table extracted 
from the WikiProject Geology pages showing numbers of entries according to quality status.

Figure 1: Table extracted from the WikiProject Geology pages showing numbers of entries according to quality status.

A little further behind the scenes we can see the following categories:

There are many such entries and they show a form of citation indexing where some quality control is needed. These omissions can be rectified by Wikipedian, crowd-sourcing, responses. This may take time but it could be argued that a traditional print encyclopaedia would find this difficult to achieve in a revised version and only an online format could make this a reasonable task to accomplish. From an academic tutors' point of view, this would show students where they need to improve their referencing skills. Of course, the extent this might be required depends upon specific cases yet the feature shows that Wikipedia takes quality control, as 'Verifiability', very seriously. Such considerations bring us to the need for memory in an increasingly information-rich and complex world [27] (Bowker, 2008) as well as the use of Wolfram Alpha [28] and structured queries from anybody, not just students. This in turn brings us to the Semantic Web [29] part of Tim Berners-Lee's vision. The implications here are considerable for the support of student information literacy. Unfortunately, most academics are still trying to catch up with Web2.0.

Digital and Information Literacies for Students

Returning to the original contention, what is it about Wikipedia that antagonises some academics? The ease of getting to basic data? That students do not have to use libraries or search diligently? Perhaps some or all of these? Or is it because, paradoxically, students do not have to visit prescribed texts that are produced by fellow academics? Of course, Wikipedia might be the refuge of a last-minute, 'couldn't-care-less' attitude to writing a report or essay.

I have used what I call the 'hoodoo test' to show students that even specialised dictionaries (not just Britannica) are generally inferior to Wikipedia's entry. A hoodoo is one particular landform [30] and I have asked students to compare the entries in several dictionaries or encyclopedias. Needless to say, and notwithstanding my additions to the online entry, Wikipedia provides the best information. Not least because it provides images. The Oxford Companion to the Earth only has a single line reference that begs the question of what a hoodoo actually looks like.

Bringing anti-Wikipedia approaches to students' advantage is not unknown. Examples include Munger's (undated) 'Having Undergraduates Write for Wikipedia' [31]. She begins her paper:

Most students don't like writing papers. Honestly, how many of us like grading papers? But to learn how to think critically they need to learn how to ask questions, find good sources using the library's abundant resources, read and understand journal articles, and write about those journal articles intelligently.

I do not think many academics would dispute this. But what many do forget is what it is like to be a student! Things are done at the last minute and with minimum effort. So turning the intricacies of Wikipedia, its requirements and editing technicalities is useful for students and their knowledge of how the information world works. Wikimedia publishes useful documents on its bookshelf [32] on Wikipedia article quality and a general 'Welcome to Wikipedia' with how to start editing material. Getting involved is an important part of being a Wikipedian and there is no reason that students cannot contribute to the greater good. Making use of the requirements of Tone, Balance and Misuse of primary sources is an important part of academic writing and reporting as engendered by Wikipedia editors.

Some Conclusions and Implications

Perhaps other academic societies and professional bodies can contribute to an upgrading and extending Wikipedia entries. I suggest that it is unlikely that publishers will continue to produce printed encyclopaedias even given the possibility of digital-related funding opportunities. Not only because they become out of date and are (in print-on-paper versions) difficult and expensive to update but because of the difficulties of providing reasonable remuneration for contributors to 'locked-down' copyrighted tomes. Open Educational Resources could be much enhanced by a Creative Commons/Wikipedia approach.

It is possible that 'academics' would be less against the Open Resource approach of Wikipedia (the 'not invented here' syndrome?) if they were happier about the quality of entries. Yet showing students how Wikipedia works is a good way of showing how to do research, develop independent learning and good information handling skills. My concern is that most academics will not take this on board. If they will not, then the need to do this falls on Library and Information staff – who are often involved in digital skills anyway – but they could work with developers to involve students with meaningful exercises, search schemas and information literacies.

There are other implications for librarians and learning developers associated with student skills, especially with regard to gaining digital and information literacy. Pressures will come from the technology available to students in the form of tablets and 'ultrabooks'. I have argued previously about the significance of mobile technologies [33] and the specific importance of the iPad in its first incarnation [34]. The 'retina display' of the latest iPad and iPhone makes all forms of digital interaction easier than ever before. These mobile devices, as part of the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movement, clearly have implications on what applications are used to aid students' studies. It is possible that institutions will cut down on the need for 'Open Access Areas' (also known of old as 'computer labs') as rolling replacement of fixed machines declines. Students will have tablets as part of their Personal Learning Environments to take with them to learning spaces which are governed as much by their needs and requirements as their physical location. It also means that classes, labs and libraries become interconnected learning spaces. This will however put pressure on institutions to provide high-quality broadband WiFi extensively over their campuses. Halls of residence commonly provide Ethernet access. However, tablet users will soon be asking for WiFi access to take advantage of any good weather to sit outside to study. The more techie-minded will no doubt think of hardware solutions although I suspect officialdom will exert control. Extensions of networking could mean benefits for information professionals. Help desks as such may become flexible with Skype access and the development of local apps.  An example here is the University of Exeter's Layar Augmented Reality facility [35].

Now this may seem a way from where we started, with Wikipedia. However, the implications of students' use of Wikipedia is that they will need physical libraries less. No need to go to the library if you can get the information online. If Wikipedia is the first port of call, as it already seems to be, for information requirement traffic, then there is a commitment to build on Open Educational Resources (OERs) of various kinds and improve their quality. This would be additional to going beyond Wikipedia to journals and academic e-books. Promoting Wikimedia's 'Education project' [36] and the 'Campus Ambassadors' programme [37] would promote digital and information literacies: the things students need to know about in terms of their digital learning futures [38].


  1. Jaschik, S. A stand against Wikipedia.  2007
  2. JISC, Developing Digital Literacies, 2012 http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/briefingpapers/2012/developing-digital-literacies.aspx
  3. JISC, 2009/2012. Learning Literacies in a Digital Age. Briefing Paper. http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/briefingpapers/2012/developing-digital-literacies.aspx
  4. Geological Society of London 2012  Something Wiki this way comes. Geoscientist May 2012,  http://www.geolsoc.org.uk/gsl/geoscientist/atlarge/wikipedia
  5. Wikipedia: User: Charles Matthews http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Charles_Matthews
  6. Wikipedia entry: Ophiolite http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophiolite
  7. Hydraulic fracturing http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fracking
  8. Fracking: Friends of the Earth Cymru concerns after UK government approval. BBC News South-east Wales 17 April 2012
  9. Wikipedia: Talk: Hydraulic fracturing  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Hydraulic_fracturing#WP:NPOV
  10. Hancock, P.L. and Skinner, B.J. 2000, The Oxford Companion to the Earth. Oxford University Press.
  11. Category:Hydraulic fracturing http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Hydraulic_fracturing
  12. Wikipedia:No original research (WP: NOR) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:No_original_research
  13. Jim Giles, "Internet encyclopedias go head to head", December 2005, Nature 438 (7070): 900–901.
  14. Terdiman, D.  2005, Study: Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica
  15. WikiProject Geology  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Geology
  16. Wikipedia: Category:Geology http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Geology
  17. Wikipedia:Featured articles http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Featured_Article
  18. Wikipedia:Featured lists http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Featured_List
  19. Wikipedia:Manual of Style http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:MoS
  20. This is a cleanup listing for WikiProject Geology generated on 28 July 2012: http://toolserver.org/~svick/CleanupListing/CleanupListingByCat.php?project=Geology
  21. Wikipedia:Categorization http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Cat
  22. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Geology/Categories
  23. Wikipedia:Citing sources http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:CITE
  24. Portal:Earth sciences http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portal:Earth_sciences
  25. Wikipedia talk:WikiProject Geology http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_talk:WikiProject_Geology
  26. Wikipedia: Featured articles http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:FA  and Wikipedia:Featured lists http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Featured_lists
  27. Bowker, G.C. 2008. Memory practices in the sciences. MIT Press.
  28. Wolfram Alpha answer engine http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolfram_alpha
  29. Semantic Web http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_web
  30. Hoodoo (geology) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoodoo_%28geology%29
  31. Munger, G.  Having Undergraduates write for Wikipedia. Association for Psychological Science
  32. Outreach Wikimedia: Bookshelf http://outreach.wikimedia.org/wiki/Bookshelf/
  33. Brian Whalley. "Book Review: Learning with Online and Mobile Technologies". October 2010, Ariadne Issue 65 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue65/whalley-rvw/
  34. Brian Whalley. "Product Review: The IPad and the Educator, First Impressions". April 2010, Ariadne Issue 63 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue63/whalley-rvw-2/
  35. University of Exeter: Layar 'Augmented Reality' Browsing
  36. Wikimedia UK Education projects http://uk.wikimedia.org/wiki/Education_projects
  37. Wikipedia Ambassadors as part of the Wikipedia Education Program
  38. Facer, K. 2011, Learning Futures. Routledge.

Author Details

Brian Whalley
Visiting Professor
University of Sheffield

Email: b.whalley@sheffield.ac.uk
Web site: http://brianbox.net

Brian Whalley has retired from formal education and research in HE but now spends time catching up on previous sins of omission in writing up his glaciology research and contributions to student use of computers in fieldwork. He is a co-investigator on an HEA-funded project on 'Enhancing Fieldwork Learning' and is also involved with developing metadata for fieldwork images and data.