This NBA rookie loves Wikipedia, but many academics don't. Here's what's behind the debate

Justise Winslow of the Miami Heat said Wikipedia helped him get through high school and college. Still, the debate over whether the online encyclopedia is a valid resource continues.
Dec 16, 2015

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  • When Wikipedia's calls for donations show up on its entry pages that detail just about anything, one NBA rookie has a hard time ignoring them.

  • That's because Justise Winslow of the Miami Heat attributed a large part of his academic successes in both high school and his lone year at Duke to the online encyclopedia in a tweet from Monday.

  • Kyle Newport of Bleacher Report noted Winslow's Twitter followers probably caught the drift — though educators often detest the site.

  • "Wikipedia is a go-to website for students who need quick information on any given subject," according to Bleacher Report. "Although most teachers don't accept it as a 'source,' it certainly helps people get a decent understanding of the subject, helping jump-start the research process."

  • The education community's gripes with Wikipedia aren't anything new — present since its launch in 2001, Elizabeth Farrelly wrote for The Age.

  • Even recent studies indicating the site's information might be more accurate than that of more trusted organizations fail to sway critics' takes that it has little place in the classroom.

  • So does Wikipedia benefit students as in Winslow's case or distract them from utilizing traditional, widely accepted methods of learning?

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  • Accuracy

  • A study on Wikipedia's drug information indicated its opponents' cries of inaccuracy prove questionable, Mihai Andrei wrote for ZME Science. According to German researchers, accuracy in articles on drugs was 99.7 percent "when compared to textbook data."

  • ZME Science did report a portion of the entries analyzed weren't complete, ranging from pages between 68 percent and 91 percent as far as completeness.

  • Still, Wikipedia "provides over two-thirds of the story" and keeps readers informed on constantly changing areas like pharmacology, according to ZME Science.

  • "The fact that you have this huge resource from which you can draw massive amounts of information is remarkable," ZME's report read. "The fact that it is open source, ad free, community driven (though moderated) and still manages to have an almost perfect accuracy is simply amazing!"

  • However, students must keep in mind one factor in particular that impedes Wikipedia from delivering accurate information: bias, according to Forbes.

  • Forbes reported Wikipedia urges "civilian editors" to maintain a neutral point of view, but another study found Wikipedia's information more biased than that of traditional sources like "Encyclopædia Britannica."

  • According to Forbes, reducing bias that detracts from Wikipedia is possible.

  • But it takes thousands of edits.

  • "The number of revisions required to start showing this effect, however, is quite large — at least 2,000 edits — and the articles most read by users aren't necessarily those most revised by editors," Forbes indicated.

  • Shift of gatekeepers

  • Regardless of students' opinions on their instructors at any level of education, they must acknowledge one thing: In an effort to become experts in their chosen fields, educators spent time and money and made sacrifices to get to the point where they're considered trusted sources.

  • Educators are gatekeepers of knowledge, according to The Conversation. So they fear the ease Internet users have in making something "fact" on a site like Wikipedia takes away from this.

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  • With Wikipedia, any person typing away at a keyboard holds the power educators garnered after years of studying, Adam Coomer wrote for The Guardian.

  • This aspect not only provides students information without expert approval but also instills ineffective learning practices, often contrary to what students learned from their teachers, according to The Guardian.

  • "Academics discredit the website for several reasons: articles can be written by anyone, not necessarily a world expert; editing and regulation are imperfect and a reliance on Wikipedia can discourage students from engaging with genuine academic writing," the report read. "Vandalism is also common."

  • On the other hand, The Conversation indicated educators still assume the role of gatekeepers: Finding reliable information in the midst of the bad that's online is something they can still teach, and it's a crucial skill.

  • The Conversation piece's bottom line: Wikipedia's already cemented itself as an influential holder of knowledge — so teachers should instead teach students how to navigate it effectively.

  • "As educators, we should ignore these new tools at our peril," The Conversation wrote.

  • Matter of philosophy?

  • Ellen Fishbein wrote for The Observer that Wikipedia deniers' problems with it deal more with its approach to gathering information than its content's strength.

  • "Wikipedia has the Hayek advantage. In 1945, the economist Friedrich Hayek published, 'The Use of Knowledge in Society,' in which he argues that centrally planned systems will never collect and use knowledge from a large group as efficiently as a free-market system will," according to The Observer. "Wikipedia exemplifies Hayek's idea: It is a decentralized, free-market model that aggregates human knowledge better than an elite team of experts ever could."

  • The Conversation's report noted something to the same extent: Journal articles are reviewed by a small, "self selected" group; a Wikipedia entry "has been peer-reviewed by possibly thousands of interested readers."

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  • Basically, methods of deciding if information proves valid or not in academia contrasts completely from how Wikipedia completes the same task.

  • But whether you're a former student like Winslow who sings praises to the organization or an educator with disdain for it, there's one last thing of interest to note.

  • Teachers and those at Wikipedia face some of the same obstacles in meeting their goals, like in a field such as history, Rebecca J. Rosen wrote for The Atlantic.

  • Both of the groups' causes are worth rooting for.

  • "Wikipedia is and will always be a work in progress. But this is the case not because the effort is fundamentally broken, but because the work of historians is also a messy one, and Wikipedia reflects that," according to The Atlantic. "With the work of both Wikipedians and historians … over time the record is set straight."

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Payton Davis is a writer for Deseret Digital Media.

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