On Wikipedia as a reference

I’ve only just gotten around to reading the January 2008 edition of “Hands on”, the newsletter of the South Africa Society of Physiotherapy (SASP) and it was with interest that I noticed a citation by the editor (Editor’s note, page 2) for Wikipedia. Unfortunately, only the name of the website (Wikipedia.org) was mentioned and not the full URL, so I couldn’t check to see exactly what had been referenced. It was in relation to a discussion about WHO, the Declaration of Alma Ata and “Health for all”.

I’ve always used Wikipedia as a reference point, a place to begin researching a topic. It often gives a useful summary of the topic and if it’s a well researched article (a key point), will include citations and external links to sources. The controversy surrounding the use of Wikipedia among teachers and students is, in my opinion, largely because of misunderstanding. Misunderstanding by academics of what Wikipedia is and what it isn’t, and misunderstanding by students on how to use this great resource.

I don’t think that the use of Wikipedia in itself as a reference is the problem. I believe that the problem is more likely that we don’t teach students a better way to search for and recognise credible articles online. There are fantastic articles on Wikipedia that are as good as those of other encyclopedias (both online and in print), but there are also extremely poor ones. We need to begin teaching students how to recognise the quality of an article, to take from it what is useful and to disregard the rest.