Wikology 101: Where Wikipedia and Academia Meet
By Danielle Hance
Google some common psychology topics, and you may find yourself reading a Wikipedia article written by a Concordia student.
Instead of having students complete a semester-long research paper, Dr. Mona Ibrahim, associate professor of psychology, had them create or expand a Wikipedia article for her introductory psychology course.
For students, the assignment refuted some commonly held academic assumptions. In the past, professors have decried the use of Wikipedia as a credible source, says Ibrahim. Because anyone can update it, scholars surrounded the site with skepticism. Students would use the site outside of class but never dared to cite it for a paper.
“In high school, I was told that Wikipedia was a bad source that I was not supposed to use,” says John Lindblom ‘14, Fergus Falls, Minn., “so I wondered why we were doing this as a college project.”
However, the online encyclopedia’s influence is now so pervasive that professional organizations encourage scholars and their students to improve and expand its content.
The Association for Psychological Science has its own Wikipedia initiative to “deploy the power of Wikipedia to represent scientific psychology as fully and as accurately as possible and thereby to promote the free teaching of psychology worldwide.”
Ibrahim is one of the pioneers of the project. She wrote an article, titled “Reflections on Wikipedia in the Classroom,” that was published in the January 2012 issue of “The Observer,” an APS publication.
Ibrahim’s reasons for supporting the project are obvious.
“Wikipedia is the first go-to for anyone researching, myself included,” she says. “It is the first place most of us go to find out the basics.”
A 2005 report by the Online Computer Library Center indicates that only 2 percent of college students begin searching for information at a library website.
As a result, the work of Ibrahim’s students likely has a far greater reach than most articles published in scholarly journals. Wikipedia articles are accessed more than 750,000 times daily in English alone, according to Wikipedia. An article written by students in Ibrahim’s class has been viewed more than 400,000 times in the last 90 days.
“Scholarly journals are only seen by a limited expanse,” Ibrahim says, “but the students felt their articles are seen by more people.”
A Wikipedia article is the first result in a Google search for “object permanence.” Lindblom’s group worked on this article, and he’s glad to see that people are using their research.
“It’s neat to have your contributions be seen publicly,” he says.
The road to making their research public wasn’t short. All information posted on Wikipedia goes through an extensive review process. Ibrahim likened this process to a peer review for a scholarly journal.
Three of the nine student groups, including Lindblom’s, went through an even more meticulous review to achieve “good article” status. According to Wikipedia, less than 1 percent of articles had achieved good article status as of April 1.
Both Ibrahim and the students gained more respect for Wikipedia during the course of the semester.
“Before, I thought that anyone can post anything on Wikipedia,” Ibrahim says. “It surprised all of us how much it is reviewed. My respect and enthusiasm for Wikipedia increased.”
In fact, a recent study published in the international science journal “Nature” found that the overall accuracy of scientific entries on Wikipedia rivaled those in Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The students also realized through the constant critiques and edits of their articles that learning doesn’t end when a test or paper is completed. Ibrahim saw habits of lifelong learning developing in her students through the project.
Ibrahim is currently conducting a follow-up study to her Wikipedia assignment with one of her teaching assistants. Their findings will be presented at Wikimania, the international Wikipedia conference, in July.
Many of Ibrahim’s students continue to improve their articles. Lindblom’s group hopes to eventually attain featured article status, Wikipedia’s highest standard.
“It was very rewarding for them to contribute to knowledge in the world, to do something bigger than a paper,” says Ibrahim.
Photos: Sheldon Green