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Report Looks at Wikipedia Use of College Students

March 17, 2010

by Agnes Jasinski

If you've had classes since 2001, the year the (in)famous online, user-edited encyclopedia was launched, chances are you're guilty of using Wikipedia as a source of information while completing your coursework. A new report from First Monday, an online peer-reviewed journal, took a look at just how prevalent the site has become on college campuses in particular (although high school students are probably just as bad offenders), and how students have begun to rely on Wikipedia as a resource.

According to the study, more than half of all respondents use Wikipedia frequently or always for course-related research. Students in architecture, engineering, or the sciences were more likely to use the site in their courses than other majors. (This could have something to do with the fact that students in social sciences like psychology or history must provide reference lists more often for papers they turn in, and citing Wikipedia simply won't fly on a college level essay.) The study surveyed 2,318 students, and took qualitative data from 86 of those students who participated in focus groups.

Other major findings of the study include the following:

  • Most students said they used Wikipedia for a summary about a topic (82 percent), the meaning of related terms (67 percent), and to get started on research (76 percent).
  • About 52 percent of the respondents were frequent Wikipedia users, even if an instructor advised against it.
  • Only 22 percent reported that they rarely, if ever, used Wikipedia.
  • About 17 percent used Wikipedia because they thought it was more credible than other sites.
  • Only about 2 percent used Wikipedia toward the end of their research process.
  • Overall, the strongest predictor of using Wikipedia was being someone who also used Google for course–related research.
  • Those enrolled in two–year campuses were less likely than those in four–year institutions to report that they used Wikipedia.

Whether you're writing a college essay or applying for an essay scholarship, here's a good rule of thumb on citing Wikipedia as a reference—don't do it. While the site can be an excellent tool for you to kick off your search, as the study above suggests, it simply isn't reliable enough to be taken seriously by academia. Anyone can add to and edit entries on the site, so it's always best to do some fact-checking after you get your Wikipedia summary prior to the start of the rest of your research. (Stephen Colbert proved this point when he edited Wikipedia articles on his own show, George Washington, and elephants, all while viewers watched. He also coined the term "wikiality," which refers to the reality that exists if you make something up and enough people agree with you.)


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