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"And students need to experiment with a new and radically different approach to essay writing: disconnect the internet, go for a walk, think of an idea, and write it down."

Not just students.

Wikipedia is the best.

Craig - that's what I do, or try to do.

Sina - and when Wikipedia isn't right, there's an easy solution: log in and fix it.

It starts in elementary school. My daughter is told frequently not to use wikipedia. And it makes me mental. Wikipedia isn't perfect. It gets some stuff wrong (although that is sometimes corrected too). But as you say - it's a good basic entry, and often it's as much information as you need. All you need to know is a) don't treat it like revealed truth; b) cite it if you use it; c) use it sensibly - e.g., by mining the sources it references; d) research other sources as well.

I'm not surprised students get tripped up with academic integrity issues on this one.

As an aside, we sometimes expect too much of students on academic integrity. I became aware of an incident where a student was told that he could collaborate with other students in preparing his answer. So he did so. Then he and the other student got in trouble because their answers used the same language. The rule - which was not set out in the syllabus or course outline anywhere - was that they could collaborate but they could not submit answers with the same words. I think expecting an undergraduate student to parse that difference is unrealistic, especially if you don't tell him that the difference exists.

Alice @Woolleylaw - please tell your daughter she has my sympathies!

It's another one of these cases where there's too much emphasis on what *shouldn't* be done and not enough emphasis on what *should* be done.

Because I grew up in a pre-internet world, I have a mental concept of what a newspaper or encyclopedia or dictionary or magazine or scholarly journal is. In the world view that I formed in school, books and journals were somehow scholarly and valuable and authoritative, because they resided in libraries and/or were rare and expensive. Newspapers were much less authoritative, because they're bought for 50 cents and thrown away, and things like blogs didn't really exist. In some sense, I still see the internet as an electronic equivalent of this physical reality, so I see some websites as scholarly and valuable and authoritative, and some as not-so-authoritative.

It's just stupid to think that your daughter or any other person born after 1990 is going to somehow magically intuit this pre-internet conception of the categorization of knowledge. They're not going to learn how to spot a reputable site unless someone teaches them.

As Frances sorta points out, anyone born post 1990 probably starts with a VERY different conception of what is appropriate use of other people's ideas than the Dean's Office set, especially when it come to materials available gratis on the internet. Stealing? How can it be stealing when they're being given away!

My oldest is headed for grade 1, so has yet to encounter this. Seems to me that elementary and secondary school students might be better served by being taught how to figure out if a Wikipedia entry is BS or not, rather than just the mechanics of how to cite it (at this point, my librarian better half would launch into her tirade about information literacy).

"And students need to experiment with a new and radically different approach to essay writing: disconnect the internet, go for a walk, think of an idea, and write it down."

It's not clear to me how this is an effective way to write an essay, unless it's a creative writing assignment. Thinking of ideas and writing them down isn't how a student essay is expected to work. It's expected that the student will go and read (whether online or on paper in the library) about a topic - possibly even referring to primary sources (my wife spent some time reading 19th century Hansards for a history paper a couple years ago) - and then write that newly found knowledge down in their own words. Going for a walk and making something up just doesn't cut it.

And if a first grader wants to read Wikipedia, they should read Wikipedia. It's the greatest thing for the curious mind.

Also, when I was in elementary school, we were encouraged to refer to traditional encyclopedias, which often provided enough information to write the whole essay, given the level of expectations places on an eight year old. I seem to recall reading about a study recently comparing the accuracy of a traditional encyclopedia to Wikipedia, and finding in Wiki's favour. Which I think makes sense: traditional encyclopedia articles are less likely to be written by experts on a particular subject, and I don't recall being readily able to dive into the encyclopedia's sources.

I use wikipedia all the time as a reference point to start searching into math topics that I need more info on. I usually go in with a vague idea of what I want to achieve and what techniques I need to achieve it, but can't remember what those techniques are called or which textbooks I can look them up in. I can usually either get what I want from the wiki page, or I get enough of the correct terminology that I can find it elsewhere.

I never, ever, use wikipedia for economics. My view of the economics articles on wiki (and I admit that I formed this view a few years ago - things may have improved since then) is that they are mostly written by heterodox "scholars" who abuse wikipedia's NPOV policy to over rule any edits made by sensible economists. The heavy heterodox slant makes (made?) wikipedia completely un-usable for economics.

Neil "Thinking of ideas and writing them down isn't how a student essay is expected to work. It's expected that the student will go and read ...and then write that newly found knowledge down in their own words."

Walks are needed at two stages in this process. First, when coming up with a topic, or an overall approach to take to a topic. Sure, I spend a lot of time checking sources on the internet while I'm writing a blog post, but the idea for the post usually comes to me when I'm doing something else - walking or cycling or whatever. The second time to talk a walk (or two) is between the research stage and the writing stage. See Nick Rowe's piece on student essays as collages, referred to above. Students don't take time to synthesize the various ideas they've found, digest them, and then make them their own. They copy and paste, and then rearrange the order of words in a sentence, and use an on-line thesaurus to replace a few words in each sentence with a synonym.

Is there a problem with writing essays this way? The problem, I see it, is that students don't actually learn how to formulate an idea and write it down, which is one of the more valuable skills that they could, potentially, learn in university.

Evan - I agree that economics entries in Wikipedia stand out for being particularly weak. Take, for example, an entry like the one on comparative advantage, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparative_advantage. It has all of the usual problems: a totally confusing theory section written by some grad student or advanced undergrad who's just paraphrasing his or her textbook, and section devoted to heterodox critiques. And that's actually one of the better wikipedia entries on economics. At least it's coherent and well-organized, which most aren't.

I think it's easy (and wrong) to simply blame heterodox economists though. At one point some student in South Africa messed up the wikipedia entry on the Samuelson conditions (the conditions for the efficient provision of public goods). This student put his own name there as a joke. It was about 2 years before someone (yours truly) went in and fixed it. It's basically hard work to write a good encyclopedia entry on a complex economic topic, and most of the people who are good at doing that kind of thing can't be bothered. (Personally, I'd rather do a write-up here, and then put a link from Wikipedia to this blog).

Wikipedia is great for ideas and learning in general, but I think the argument for not using it is not that it lacks quality, but that it changes so frequently. When students ask me whether they can use Wikipedia, it's usually as a source for some fact. The problem then is not whether facts on Wikipedia are true or not, but whether they will even be there if the grader wishes to check up on it.

I also tell my students that they are welcome (even encouraged) to use Wikipedia when researching their papers, because I also use it to gain some preliminary knowledge of what I want to know. However, I tell them that they are not allowed to cite Wikipedia when citing that information; instead, they have to find the same information in a "real" source (e.g., peer-reviewed journal, book, think-tank publication). I want students to understand that while Wikipedia is a very useful resource, its flaws preclude it from being reliable as a primary source.

Ben - "However, I tell them that they are not allowed to cite Wikipedia when citing that information"

That approach is what lands students in the Associate Dean's office. The student cites all the same references as Wikipedia does, making it obvious that the bulk of the argument is drawn from Wikipedia, but then doesn't put Wikipedia in the references, so the prof says "you've cheated."

Simple rules are the best: put every source that you've used in the references.

I think we owe it to our students to allow them to protect themselves - telling them not to reference particular sources is just leaving them vulnerable to accusations of academic integrity violations.

I was always taught to reference two independent sources for any fact or line of thought which I always thought was a good rule. The biggest problem I think is that students tend to find an idea in one source, run with it, and then never check to see if it's supported else where, which can happen with any source. If you couldn't find a second source then make it known that the fact noted should be treated with some skepticism. That was probably the best paper writing rule I was taught as a kid and it's one that seems even professional researchers do not always follow.

I TA'd a basic First Year writing course; it was fun and I got paid. I was serious about Academic Integrity because I didn't want problems; I had a near-miss with my first group and from then on gave them a "Here's what I expect, here's the citation guidelines, document everything". Never had any problems after that and I had a reputation as a good leader.

Sure, use Wiki as a source, but I told them its main value was the links to the underlying articles, not the article itself. I did not expect brilliance, just following the cookie-cutter guidelines.

Best argument: "You/Your Parents spent considerable sums of money for you to be here. Do yourself a favour and follow the rules. Nobody likes having to hold a hearing."

The problem with Wikipedia is that in general it *is* enough information for most high school (and sometimes university) assignments. There's no practical reason to investigate further. However, that doesn't give the students any practice in actual research, synthesis, etc., and even worse, in the age of cut/paste, it's also very easy to basically pass the information through without having processed with a brain in the middle.

At least with a book, going through the transcription process makes it likely that the student will absorb and perhaps even think about what they're writing.

This is one case where technology has made learning the process of research/synthesis/critical thinking even harder, as it gives you the result right there, rendering all the students efforts make-work. It's like trying to teach arithmetic in the age of ubiquitous calculators.

Frances - that's a good point. Thanks.

Ben - this is one of the best things about this blog - it gives people a safe place to talk about teaching and research and whatever else is on their minds.

Tom: "it's also very easy to basically pass the information through without having processed with a brain in the middle."

I'm thinking that part of the solution is to radically rethink the kinds of assignments that profs give students. I like the analogy with arithmetic - that some kinds of problems or tasks, e.g. giving people a whole series of numbers to add up, writing a research paper, just don't build the same skills that they once did.

Dr. Woolley, I saw some potential problem. As you pointed, Wikipedia is very easy to revise. If something's wrong, log in and fix it. Due to that property, cited Wikipedia posts are really unreliable. Assume one of your students cites "apple" from a Wikipedia post. While reading the paper, you want to see the source and find "pear" because someone has revised it after that student cited it. You can never know whether that student did a right referencing. Isn't it a problem?

Fran R Woolley: "The student cites all the same references as Wikipedia does, making it obvious that the bulk of the argument is drawn from Wikipedia, but then doesn't put Wikipedia in the references, so the prof says "you've cheated."

"Simple rules are the best: put every source that you've used in the references."

That's the kind of thing that I might have run afoul of as an undergraduate. Now, by the time I was in college, I did not dream of consulting an encyclopedia as a reference for a paper. What's the university library for? No, what I might well have done (And may have done. I have no recollection.) would have been to find a reference to a primary source in a secondary source and then, having consulted the primary source, not cite the secondary source along with it. In fact, I would have regarded doing so as not only unnecessary but as superfluous, a kind of noise pollution. I certainly would not have regarded not citing the secondary source as cheating.

Chun - "You can never know whether that student did a right referencing. Isn't it a problem?"

Not at all. Wikipedia keeps a record of all changes to a site, including a record of who made the changes, and when the changes were made. I think it's necessary to create an account and login, but it's easy enough to check.

Min - Plagiarism includes "Using ideas or material without appropriate acknowledgment in any academic assignment." (That's from the Carleton website).

Using a secondary source and not citing or acknowledging seems to me to be a pretty clear violation of that policy. I agree that students don't always see it that way, but that's where profs need to work harder at letting students know what their expectations are.

Fran R Woolley: "Min - Plagiarism includes "Using ideas or material without appropriate acknowledgment in any academic assignment." (That's from the Carleton website)."

Well, that seems ambiguous to me, and in a class I would ask about what it meant. But suppose that I were writing a paper on the photoelectric effect and found out from an paper by Eddington that Einstein discovered it and wrote a paper about it in 1905, and then commented on Einstein's paper, I would not have considered that using the secondary source in the paper. Now if "assignment" is used in a broader sense, then that source was used in the assignment, if not the paper per se. Then I might have a statement like, "Einstein discovered the photoelectric effect (Eddington, 1927; Einstein, 1905). I would not have bothered citing Eddington when I was an undergrad. Nobody gave us any formal rules, either. :)

"Wikipedia is the best place to begin a search, and the worst place to end it." So said one of the founders of Wikipedia, wish I'd saved the exact quote. I think this is exactly right.

Students need to distinguish informativeness from authoritativeness. Wikipedia is usually great on the first count, but fails on the second.

@Dr. Woolley

It's just stupid to think that your daughter or any other person born after 1990 is going to somehow magically intuit this pre-internet conception of the categorization of knowledge. They're not going to learn how to spot a reputable site unless someone teaches them.

Really? People who have grown up using the Internet are less likely to intuit an accurate sense of which websites are reputable and which aren't than people who didn't? I suspect it's quite the other way around, and moreover the categorization of knowledge you refer to is pretty flawed. Sure, anyone can edit Wikipedia - but really anyone can publish a book, too, and say whatever they want in it.

The fact that it's a bit more expensive to publish a book does not mean it's more reliable; it means the author cared a lot more about whatever belief they expressed. People care really strongly about expressing their wrong beliefs all the time.

@Jack P.

Students need to distinguish informativeness from authoritativeness. Wikipedia is usually great on the first count, but fails on the second.

I think your epistemology is a little wacky if those two notions diverge significantly. Why not just use normal Bayesian reasoning?

I agree that the issue is not whether to cite Wikipedia or not but about students learning to recognize quality of insight (i.e. something more than facts), to evaluate the arguments of others (especially if different experts disagree) and to integrate the better parts into your own conclusions. Those skills are fundamental goals of education process, even if a student may not fully appreciate it when writing a report late at night just before it is due. So, in my opinion, students still need to be warned about Wikipedia.

Teachers should not encourage laziness, especially if they are preparing students for life after university. The most revealing experience that I have heard concerning Wikipedia came from the National Director of Research of a large company. Occasionally, some recent university graduate would try to use Wikipedia as a source on a report for a (paying!) client. Naturally, she was very unhappy for lots of reasons.

Alex - "People who have grown up using the Internet are less likely to intuit an accurate sense of which websites are reputable and which aren't than people who didn't?"

I said that people are not going to intuit a pre-internet categorization of knowledge. That's different from intuiting whether or not a website is reputable. Try googling, for example, the words vaccine autism link. The top 10 hits include a really diverse collection of websites. I don't think it would be at all obvious to the average 10 year old which of these sites are authoritative and which ones aren't. It takes a fair bit of knowledge about the world (e.g. knowledge that .gov are official US government websites, .gc.ca are official Canadian government websites, what a scholarly article is) to spot the more reputable ones.

Right, but I think you are skipping a step there. You say:

I said that people are not going to intuit a pre-internet categorization of knowledge. That's different from intuiting whether or not a website is reputable.

And move on to:

It takes a fair bit of knowledge about the world (e.g. knowledge that .gov are official US government websites, .gc.ca are official Canadian government websites, what a scholarly article is) to spot the more reputable ones.

I'm suggesting that (controlling for their age and general inexperience) children who grew up using the Internet and not using libraries are better-equipped to make those judgments about websites.

"The fact that it's a bit more expensive to publish a book does not mean it's more reliable; it means the author cared a lot more about whatever belief they expressed. People care really strongly about expressing their wrong beliefs all the time."

A point I once had to make to an ernest young undergrad who couldn't quite figure out why there was a problem with writing a (sureal) paper on post-WWII Chinese economic history relying on a handful of old books published by the People's Liberation Press. The notion that the Chinese government might have published books assessing it's economic performance in the 1950s and 60's for a purpose other than the pursuit of truth eluded him.

Mostly agree with Evan. Though the issue is politics not heterodoxcy per se. Intellectualism has social value, thus very convoluted systems of wrongness to justify policy choices.

That said, journals are just as infected. Wikipedia is not worse.

"ssume one of your students cites "apple" from a Wikipedia post. While reading the paper, you want to see the source and find "pear" because someone has revised it after that student cited it. You can never know whether that student did a right referencing."

Oh come on. Professors should teach their students how to cite Wikipedia *correctly*.

Wikipedia has *change logs*, and it's easy to go look at old versions of pages. The citation should include which version of a page you looked at, just as you should cite which version of a textbook you are referencing. Only in the cases of completely-deleted pages is the change history hard to find.

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