Wikipedia's sticky wicket

Students in history classes at Middlebury College this spring may have to change the way they do research for papers or tests. Although they can consult the online encyclopedia Wikipedia for background, they are not allowed to cite it as a source.

Professors who drafted the new policy at the Vermont college praise the free website as a "wonderful innovation." They note the more than 1.6 million entries, the up-to-date bibliographies, and the links to relevant, often more reliable sites. But they caution that its open-editing system, which allows anyone to write or edit entries anonymously, carries a risk of error.

Just this month a dark cloud fell over Wikipedia's credibility after it was revealed that a trusted contributor who claimed to be a tenured professor of religion was actually a 24-year-old college dropout. He was also one of the appointed "arbiters" who settled disputes between contributors.

For the many "wiki"-type sites – ones that compile knowledge with volunteers – such an ethical misstep would be a test of their ability for internal correction. But it also reinforces educators' warnings to students to be "informationally literate" in how to use the six-year-old Wikipedia and to rely more on the thousands of more-scholarly databases online.

Wikipedia not only challenges the concept of what an encyclopedia is; it also raises an intriguing question: What qualifies as intellectual authority in an age of information overload, when society relies increasingly on the Internet?

Some critics are troubled by what they regard as a tendency on the Web to value anonymous, collective thought over individual intellect. Some claim Wikipedia devalues traditional scholarship. Supporters counter that the online encyclopedia's constant and easy revision of articles only strengthens their credibility. Fans also praise Wikipedia for "democratizing" knowledge, pitting pedigreed academics against amateur scholars.

Globalization and technology are creating other sociocultural changes that challenge old notions of expertise. When people can now more easily, say, sell a house, write a will, or file a complex tax return, they defer less to authorities, among them lawyers, clergy, teachers, and other professionals.

The Internet's ability to empower individuals with an illusion of infinite knowledge challenges even notions of reality. Like Pontius Pilate's question – What is truth? – supporters of Wikipedia are asking "Whose truth?"

Is information on the site absolute fact or simply a matter of group consensus? Is any information accurate only by agreement of those with extensive credentials using peer review, or do the masses have a voice?

If other schools follow Middlebury's lead, the collective effect could encourage Wikipedia to raise its standards. Scholars, too, might benefit from using "wiki" practices, such as open access and wider input.

Middlebury's policy serves as a reminder about the need to carefully sift any information on the Internet. Over time, users will force sites like Wikipedia to build up the same trust and reputations now granted to established institutions such as universities or old-style encyclopedias. Truth, like truthfulness, must be demonstrated.

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