Posted January 14, 2008 5:29 pm by with 18 comments

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So another college professor has banned Wikipedia (and Google). Oh, woe is me. The world is ending. Oh, the stifling of creative thought at institutions of higher learning these days. Censorship! Censorship!


This story is only news to people who’ve been out of school too long. For most of us in our every day lives, a perfunctory Google search is enough research to answer a question. And, honestly, if you’re working on a research paper and you need to be reminded what day Pearl Harbor was bombed, Wikipedia and/or Google will probably suffice.

However, Google or Wikipedia is not an adequate resource when you’re working on a scholarly paper. When I was an undergrad, a professor I worked for “banned” Wikipedia (this was in 2004, I believe) for our students’ research papers—and every other encyclopedia. Honestly, I didn’t write a paper for school based on an encyclopedia entry after the fifth grade (when we called them “reports,” not essays or research papers, or any other name that implied critical thought).

While this was a 100-level class, my professor wanted to teach students that an encyclopedia is not an adequate resource for a college-level research paper. Frankly, neither is Google. Those resources might occasionally be a good place to start when trying to learn more about a topic, but beyond the basics and into the realm of critical thought, they’re woefully lacking.

To many of us who rely on Google and Wikipedia for fast facts, it might seem appalling that a teacher would ban their use in a learning environment. But let’s put it this way: when you’re in college, going to school, learning and presenting your original, critical thought is your job. Would you make reports to superiors or clients that you created from Wikipedia or whatever came up on top in Google at your job?

For fast, basic facts, yes, it would probably work—the capital of Ghana (Accra), the GDP of Azerbaijan ($59.71 billion (2006 est.)), the dates of World War I (1914-1918, treaty in 1919), for example. But when you’re turning in work to be graded on your critical thought, are you just going to cut and paste the #1 result in Google for what comes up in your thesis statement?

It wouldn’t pass as “analysis,” a “report,” or even “work” at most companies, and there’s no reason why it should qualify as scholarly thought in a university setting.

Well done, Professor Brabazon. Well done. You know, even if it’s completely impossible to enforce and won’t stand up a minute once they’re out of your eyesight.


  • Sure, Wikipedia is great if you’re only looking for some fast information or if you’ve forgotten about something and need to refresh your memory but when you are doing research for a serious project…well that’s when it starts showing its limits.

    Alan Johnson

  • It can also be useful for source identification, which is probably where the students are not benefited. Ho hum. It’s not the tool; it’s the use.

    Best, Rich

  • I’m tutoring 3 distant-learning courses for a University and whenever I find something that looks like a verbatim copy I simply cut and paste the phrase in Google… it’s ok to grab some statements, but without proper reference it’s plagiarism. I usually give only 1 chance… Students usually do it only once πŸ™‚

    I think both Google and Wikipedia have their value, but not as a definitive source of wisdom. The analysis and synthesis skills are much more important than being able to find lots of irrelevant and disconnected snippets of information.

    Good post!

  • Jordan McCollum

    @S.Hamel—I was watching a movie this weekend and I was struck by this quotation:

    “Plagiarism is an academic crime and it’s punishable by academic death!”

    When I caught students recycling old papers (or their roommates’ old papers), I had them rewrite them. If I had told the professor, he might have had the students go before the academic standards board.

  • When I was in school there was no Wikipedia and there was no Google. Maybe that’s why I still don’t rely on either for facts. I’ll use them to find information, but information isn’t the same thing as fact.

  • Pingback: Follow Up On Google/Wikipedia Ban « Unique-Frequency()

  • Zen

    I’ve always said that Wikipedia should have academic people of some sort certify some of the most important pages with a “academically correct content” badge or something. The page wouldn’t be allowed to be altered after that, of course, but still… they would be making wikipedia a trustable academic source.

  • I can’t believe it, the one Google story from my hometown newspaper and I miss it!

    You have to watch those kids from Brighton, they’ll get up to no good if you don’t watch ’em. πŸ˜‰

  • Zen, it would be extremely difficult for them to pull it through and, also, pages need to be updated from time to time once certain aspects need to be added since everything needs to be kept relevant.

    Alan Johnson

  • I don’t quite understand the comparison between Wikipedia an Google and even less the fact that you consider Google to be a resource.
    Google is essentially a tool that points you to online content or information resource as you might call it. Google does not provide the information itself something that Wikipedia does.
    You can perfectly use Google as a tool to get information sources like Data sheets, Study results and other publications it’s not like you’re going to invent whatever it is that you are writing about, you are in a way or another going to use the work that others have done before you as reference, at least in most cases.

  • Jordan McCollum

    Google [capital of Ghana] or [gdp of azerbaijan] or [define accuracy] and tell me Google doesn’t provide information.

    And, really, I don’t understand why you say Google isn’t a resource and then tell us what a good resource it can be.

    In scholarly works, there are certainly other ways to find previous works. The professor in this article provided her students with a reading list. There are search engines that search only articles peer-reviewed journals. isn’t one of them.

  • i think what you’re saying makes a lot of sense but you should also point out the reason google isn’t a very good resource/tool for research purposes: it doesn’t search secondary sources (let alone most primary sources–but that’s changing!).
    i find getting my grubby hands on secondary sources to be a challenge most of the time.
    one GREAT source i know of:
    can access research journals for free! πŸ˜›

    as for wikipedia, i think that’s a resource and tends toward being more right than wrong. typically the entries are put together by “experts” within a field, including citations and further reading material, including links. it’s also a fluid entry-point for information so as changes arise, the site is updated. that doesn’t happen with a journal…and a student could easily get that old information and cite it as correct!

    SO, i have to disagree w/ the professors’ decisions (and your argument?) that wikipedia isn’t a valid source. i think there’s a dangerous duality at play:
    on the one hand the professors want to teach students what “proper” resources are while at the same time perpetuating elitist perspectives on who holds the keys to education & thought. (i’m not convinced that professors necessarily have better answers than “non-experts”…they simply have more time to gather sources that support their arguments, making them *appear* to be more legitimate). blogger apophenia ( has written extensively on this topic and is worth a read if you haven’t done so already.
    just my two cents.

  • Jordan McCollum

    No, I’m still going to have to say that Wikipedia and every other encyclopedia is not an appropriate resource for college-level research. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re right or wrong; in college you’re simply expected to do more than turn to an encyclopedia. A well-sourced encyclopedia (as some parts of Wikipedia are) can be a good place to go to start your research and find other sources, but it simply shouldn’t be cited in a paper on a collegiate level. It’s not intellectual elitism, it’s an expectation that students actually research their research papers.

  • you just said it: it’s a starting point. that makes it a resource.
    i think pigeonholing wikipedia as an encyclopedia isn’t quite right either. we’ve never seen a “living” encyclopedia before, making it something *more* than an encyclopedia. the sources used in citations are [typically] live links; there’s also a list of further reading. that’s about all you would expect from reading the bibliography at the end of a journal article, and citations in a journal can be wrong.
    again, i think there’s a sense of elitism within the academic community going on and elitism is not easily justified impo. not that there’s an easy solution. like you said, professors are trying to get students to think outside the box (lol, the box being common-day internet use…how far we’ve come! i remember having to do research only using the internet back in HS, meaning we’ve gone from “kids need to learn how to use the internet” to “kids need to stop using the internet for everything.”)
    personally, i feel that professors are feeling challenged by the internet now that anyone can become an expert. i don’t need a piece of paper w/ ph.d written on it to be seen as an expert since i can do independent research and then write that, post it, etc. where’s the value in the phd if just anyone can do it?
    simple answer becomes, “well, we read journals. and google doesn’t do journals” (yet). so, psychologically i can justify myself easier by claiming that wikipedia is not a validated source (even though there is MORE peer-review on wikipedia than any journal publication could dream of getting).
    citing wikipedia as a source is perfectly valid as it still requires research (i have to go there and read it). typing in a search query on a school journal database is no more difficult.
    research doesn’t have to be hard or time-consuming to be valid.
    i’m getting long-winded here…

  • Jordan McCollum

    The peer review on Wikipedia pales in comparison to the type of peer review exercised in journals. Professors aren’t doing this to stroke their egos or to make their PhDs valid. If they are as pompous as you seem to think, I’m sure they couldn’t care less that some blogger with no background in the subject is posting uninformed drivel.

    Looking something up in an encyclopedia—which is exactly what Wikipedia calls itself—doesn’t constitute sufficient research to pass a collegiate course. We’re not talking about grade school (which, as I said above, was the last time an encyclopedia was a sufficient source. Using a resource doesn’t equal research. Reading doesn’t equal research. Have we really been on the Internet so long that we can’t remember what research really is?

  • wow, you’re getting pretty heated up on this.

    i see self-justification everywhere i look, so i really wouldn’t put it past professors to do the same thing. i’d be seriously surprised to find anyone who doesn’t justify everything they think/feel/believe w/ something reflective of their personal experiences. “i deserve to make 100k…i deserve to make 10 million this year because i run a big company…i deserve to have my…” we’re an entitlement society.

    i’m not sure where you get the idea i don’t have any basis for what i’m saying…you have no real idea who i am or where i came from. you have the link in my name and that’s it.

    btw, how can the peer review pale in comparison? it’s immediately accessible. listed authors present. checks and balances in place. none of that is in a journal article.

    using the “wikipedia calls itself argument” holds zero water: google calls itself a search engine…i guess you haven’t used google docs, gmail,,…yeah, all those services are restricted to finding websites. (not)

    i think you don’t know what research means:

    i imagine you don’t know much about the positivist movement (in philosophy). maybe you do. i would look at that up and compare the sentiment of abandoning discussion of metaphysical and morality as unscientific with the banning of wikipedia in the classroom.

    i’m sorry you don’t see the elitism in this situation. elitism is a very natural habit to fall into. we all like to think we’re special–and maybe every once in a while we are actually special; most of the time we’re not special though. it’s during that “most of the time” that we begin to justify ourselves.

    that being said, you haven’t refuted nor addressed the fact that there’s no real differentiation between a bibliography on wikipedia and one at the end of a journal article. you also haven’t addressed what happens when a student gets his/her hands on a disproved article or paradigm. does it have more clout than the up-to-date wiki entry because it was printed on paper? a quick check to wikipedia would illustrate (with a citation!!) of when and why an argument was disproved.

    just not seeing it. (and i *am* open to a real discussion.)

  • Jordan McCollum

    I’m the one getting heated up? Oookay.

    Since you can’t be bothered to cut and paste the definition of research, I’ll do it for you: “Scholarly or scientific investigation or inquiry.” What exactly is scholarly about simply turning any encyclopedia? (Or Google?)

    You can contend whatever you like is at work here, but the heart of the matter, as I have consistently (and concisely) stated, relying on any encyclopedia is not sufficient for a collegiate level paper. It’s not scholarly investigation. As someone who graded hundreds of collegiate papers, I can tell you that someone who based their paper solely on a Wikipedia article hasn’t done research.

    You’re simply not listening. I’m not interested in pursuing this subject.

  • yes, you are getting heated up. you resorted to name calling–or a form of it at least: “unbased drivel”. (which was unbased of you to claim and quite rude…if you’re going to have a blog be ready for opposing views and a discussion of those views, or just stop blogging.)

    i think you’re defending a mute point as you’re now arguing what constitutes ENOUGH research. that’s very different than source *adequacy*.

    i’m “lazy” for pasting a search query here? i included the “define: research” search so you could see that i’m not cherry-picking definitions. (which you _are_).

    honestly, i feel i’m listening better than you are since you haven’t addressed my arguments *at all*.

    again, you illustrated my point and i’m not sure you meant to: “graded 100s of papers [so i know and am more qualified.” {the buzzer sounds at the evidence of self-justification} i’ve graded papers. wtf does that really have to do with anything? i can tell you that the problem in the american university system is not adequacy of research sources but the ability to communicate thought. from what i’ve read of student papers, most people are near-illiterate. and those people are getting “C’s” from professors and earning a college degree. now seriously, what’s worse: (a) student A who uses wikipedia but clearly communicates his/her thoughts or (b) student B who can’t read or write to save his/her life but “didn’t use wikipedia when researching.” the state of the union clearly answers that question for us.

    also an important question arises, “why are professors passing students in subjects said students have near-to-nil comprehension of?” simple answer! to get tenure. again, we see self-justification at its finest, as well as the fact that professors aren’t immune to a bit of natural human politico in securing a position.

    i think you have some serious reflecting to do because it’s evident you haven’t penetrated much beyond the surface of things.

    good luck!