Wikipedia logoShould students be using Wikipedia as a “reliable source” for their papers? Many do, and these days it seems to depend on what their teachers will accept, although not all students are certain it’s reliable. (Here’s an article on the topic from Seth Godin’s blog, and here’s the question asked on good old Yahoo! Answers.)

On Dec. 7 (I’m not sure how I missed this earlier, but oh, well), the BBC said that Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia‘s founder, told those in attendance at the Online Information conference in London that students of high school age and younger should be able to use the online encyclopedia as a resource. The BBC’s Alistair Coleman reported:

Mr Wales said the site, which is edited by users, should be seen as a “stepping stone” to other sources.

As long as an article included accurate citations, he said he had “no problem” with it being used as a reference for younger students, although academics would “probably be better off doing their own research.”

“You can ban kids from listening to rock ‘n’ roll music, but they’re going to anyway,” he added. “It’s the same with information, and it’s a bad educator that bans their students from reading Wikipedia.”

Somehow Wales’s logic in that last sentence seems puzzling. Although I’m not a teacher, I wouldn’t have problems with students using Wikipedia as part of their research. But I would have problems with students using it as their only resource on the topic of a paper – and you know that plenty of them will do just that. 

I also think that students should be educated in how Wikipedia is created and edited by a mixture of scholars and just plain folks who can post things that aren’t necessarily true.

But if you’ve read a Wikipedia article recently, you will see that statements presented as facts without a source are now marked as such in many articles. I think that Wikipedia can teach kids about the process of scholarship. And I still think that students should verify their facts in another source, such as the Britannica or World Book, whether it’s the online version or the version you can knock your knuckles on.