Photo by Jeoffry Ray

Wikipedia scholars

Somewhere along the line, Portland State got complacent. PSU has started to falsely assume that everyone who comes through these doors will sooner rather than later be able to tell the difference between a reliable source and a source that is garbage.

Sources such as, Sparknotes, the dictionary and Wikipedia are extremely unreliable and will draw a professor’s ire. Not being a professor, I was still shocked during spring term when I saw these sources mentioned in the body of graded assignments, as well as in research papers I was reviewing.

How could such a thing happen? Until I saw it with my own eyes, I thought it was just a myth perpetuated by professors to poke fun at students. Surely no one would have the gall to cite a content mill such as

There is no chance that a student would have the nerve to cite a source that is designed to enable a student to essentially cite material without the original, right? Unfortunately, seeing is believing. Apparently these students did not get the memo. Didn’t WR 222 cover what is and is not a reliable source?

When I took WR 222, our class went over what is and is not a reliable source. Our professor made a fun game out of it and quizzed the class about different sources. But what if a student had missed that pivotal day of class? Perhaps they were not paying attention? How do we really know that this student will get the idea early on that it is not OK to cite the dictionary, let alone mention Wikipedia in the body of any graded assignment?

My suspicions regarding students not getting the hint were confirmed when, upon reading another student’s assignment in one of my 300-level communications classes, I noticed they mentioned something and said that they got that info from Wikipedia.

All I could do was slap my forehead. What is going on with the world today that grown people in an academic setting are even mentioning Wikipedia? At best, Wikipedia is a middleman of sorts. You can go to your topic and find out what someone has asserted in regards to the topic. You can use this as a place to start, with the next step being to dig around Google Scholar or a similar source for scholarly articles regarding the assertion to see if you can find anything credible.

Another strategy is to go directly to the reference list at the bottom of a subject’s Wikipedia page and see if there are any good scholarly articles or books referenced. Perhaps the list might contain links to informative government websites with statistics, or perhaps a .edu source will provide a good push in the right direction for your budding research paper.

With that said, I love Wikipedia. However, I have sense enough not to bring it to the surface in conversations with people, let alone a graded assignment which a teaching assistant, or God forbid a professor, will observe with consternation.

During the course of an online class last term, I encountered research papers at several different phases, as well as the associated reference lists. During every stage of the peer review process, I noticed the aforementioned dubious sources. At every stage, I mentioned to them that they should probably ditch the dictionary, and that popular magazines are also generally not desirable sources. However, upon reading final drafts (and after at least one direct module done by the T.A. regarding reliable sources), the unreliable references remained.

They say you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. I think these students might have the same problem. I just want to know what kind of grade you give a student who turns in a paper with Sparknotes, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and in the reference list. Are these students doing this knowing they will only get a slap on the wrist and a low C on the paper, which will result in a B in the class if their other work is satisfactory?

I do not know what happens, because I try to stick to scholarly sources. However, I am guilty of using regional newspapers in a pinch rather than The New York Times, even though I have had professors who disagree on whether or not The New York Times is an appropriate source at all.

I am asking professors to weigh in and explain to me how this could have happened in multiple classes.
We should make efforts in good faith to rise above the siren’s call of Wikipedia. It is all too easy to click a link and think you know enough about a subject to talk about it as if you were competent. It is much harder to go to the library catalog, find a suitable scholarly book, reserve the book and then go pick up the book. I can definitely see why students would use Wikipedia. But that doesn’t mean I have to like or accept it.