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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Ethical Issues in Pedagogy: Wikipedia

One of the comments I hear over and over in scholarly debate is, "that is anecdotal," which is usually a sharp quip letting individuals know that their "data" is merely personal and does not command the same respect as sound data collected scientifically. And yet, over and over I see faculty websites, syllabi, and student papers with Wikipedia.com listed as if it were a legitimate source for research in university studies. Where "wikis" (Hawaiian word for "quick") or CoWebs (cooperative websites) may be of value in some settings, for definitive research in the Academy they are unacceptable, and silence from the Academy will only serve to cheapen the value of education and good scholarship.

One of my first encounters with Wikipedia was due to a student: sometime after I gave a lecture on "The Cleansing of the Temple Scene" (John 2:13-22), she told me that she had done quite a lot of investigating and found that a man named "Raymond Brown" thinks Jesus much more angry in the Gospel of John than in the other gospels, just as I had talked about in class. This was curious to me, since I had remembered Raymond Brown's report as different, at least in his book, The Community of the Beloved Disciple, where he states, "but the hostility [of Jesus] is no greater than in the Synoptic Gospels."[1] I decided to go to Wikipedia and find this Brown source. When I got to the site, I did not find it and spoke with the student, who days later seemed bewildered. She stated that she had become interested in the text (I was glad for that) and wanted to find out more about it; she was impressed that Wikipedia listed a lot of information that I had lectured on in class. I suppose I should have felt validated, but instead I became irritated and curious about Wikipedia.

Currently, the website, "Jesus and the Money Changers ," offers five pages of information, some of it attributed to Brown and some information not sourced at all, along with misspellings, confusing paragraphs on Jesus and John the Baptist, and statements such as, "The loud market-like atmosphere of money changers and livestock would seem somewhat at odds with the Temple being a place of prayer . . .," which demonstrates ignorance of the outer courts of the temple (hieron). Overall the information is nebulous at best, but not unless you know the difference — and this is key to student research.

Who and what is the source for Wikipedia.com entries? Last spring I asked students for assistance with this question. We were to consider Wikipedia and see if we might come to some agreement about the ethics of its use, since so many students utilize the site as a legitimate source. One student who was new to the United States said Wikipedia.com was the best place for information, especially for someone who is trying to be part of a new culture. He insisted that there was a conspiracy by governments to keep information from people, to keep them from the dynamics of social power; and that Wikipedia.com was the place one could go to understand terms and ideas — all of which was viewed as a sort of democracy of knowledge. This was a powerful statement in favor of Wikipedia, and all of us felt we had to consider his position.

The questions raised by this student's comment are interesting. Is this site manipulated by, edited, and added to by people with like-minded ideology? How might this bias show itself in the entries on Wikipedia? A person would have to analyze the data closely to answer that question, but certainly a student who is learning discernment and mastering critical analysis would not be in a position to recognize this easily. First of all, most of us do not know the protocol of wikis and how one contributes. Danyel Fisher states:

Wiki webs are largely unstructured. There is no limitation to where a user can contribute a few lines, or a page; no structure is imposed merely by contributing earlier or in response to some message. Users choose, on their own, what page gets their contributions; participants are therefore rather free to structure information as they wish . . . Annotations can be placed wherever desired; a user can create a whole new web page to explore a related idea. Spaces structured this way place a lot of responsibility on the contributors. The so-called "first writer" problem arises: the first contributor to a conversation is responsible for placing information appropriately, and for organizing the information intuitively.[2]

Fisher goes on to explain how subsequent editors or contributors cannot destroy old or originally posted information, but the person who is a "user" will not readily find deleted material so as to compare with the most recent entry. CoWebs can be helpful, according to Fisher, because they add a "high degree of freedom [, which] means that errors can be fixed promptly and new ideas can be contributed freely."[2] In other words, this freedom of information or definitions is fluid, ever-changing and, according to Fisher, a good thing.

It is curious then that a recently added box at the top of the first page of the encyclopedic entry "Wiki " at Wikipedia states, "Because of recent vandalism or other disruption, editing of this article by unregistered or newly registered users is currently disabled. Such users may discuss changes, request unprotection, or create an account." Does this sound like a contradiction? According to Fisher errors would be "fixed promptly," but here something more serious is indicated. Vandalizing information that is not authored or owned (intellectual property) and is from "the type of website that allows the visitors themselves to easily add, remove and otherwise edit and change some available content, sometimes without the need for registration" seems a contradiction in terms — free and open/not free and open. If one is free to contribute, what type of contributions are defined as vandalism and how would a student know what is vandalized information and what is not, since anyone is a source of data? Even what might be deemed a "good" entry could have been vandalized in that it may have been taken from someone else (intellectual property) and not cited by the contributor.

Wikipedia's "no original research" is itself a problem. If, as stated, "Wikipedia is not the place for original research" (Wikipedia: No Original Research ), then who is the controlling authority? Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review, observes, "any potential changes to Wikipedia's editing rules run up against philosophies of how much freedom the site's users are given."[3] Adding a controlling authority would change the very nature of freedom of collaboration and smack of containing and respecting authorship. It is this editing without respect for authorship that is part of the dilemma.

On the other hand, we may ask, what's the big deal? As Nora Miller says, "For many generations, humans inscribed clay tables and recorded information on papyrus but only rarely included their own names in the documents they produced. Many of the most famous works of antiquity come to us as accounts of words spoke by someone else."[4] So this is not a new phenomenon. In fact, Miller goes on to say that the idea of authorship did not acquire a legal and universal meaning until the development of movable type.[4] Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford University law professor who has praised the online encyclopedia, contends, "Freedom is a bigger, more important value than proprietary instinct."[5] This is a lot like what my student asserted in class last spring, that the freedom to exchange information is more important and overrides the control of knowledge by a privileged few.

But who can trust that contributors are honest and following the "no original material" rule? In his article, "The Wiki Factor," Philip Evans argues, "In collaborative networks, users develop relationships and collaborate continuously; as a result, they are motivated to behave themselves."[6] Maybe I am tainted by reports and by my own experience of how many students cheat on tests, purchase online papers, and turn them in as their own, and plagiarism has been detected at even high levels of publishing. I guess these problems would be eradicated if all of us would only "collaborate" online?

Yet it must be acknowledged that Wikipedia is used as a source by many good scholars. In Free Trade (published in 2005), Jennifer Peloso uses Wikipedia for one of her articles. In her book, Wikipedia is listed as a legitimate source, along with sources such as the Journal of Commerce, The Economist, and The Christian Science Monitor. Then again we hear of complaints such as that by John Seigenthaler, Sr., a former editor of USA Today, who "publicly complained in that newspaper last month that he had been vilified in a Wikipedia entry. The entry, which has been changed, had falsely linked him to political assassinations."[7] This example is what perpetuates the bad reputation of Wikipedia and cooperative collaboration in technology. When we consider both of these examples, we are left with a good/bad dichotomy as to how to evaluate this tool of collaboration.

Such technologies of cooperation sprang from the Internet and are a good thing, according to some. As Howard Rheingold says, "the Internet itself is an example of 'the artificial public good'."[8] Rheingold points out that the "computer and Internet would not exist as they do today without extraordinary collaborative enterprises."[8] He goes on to discuss "hackers" and explains that they began as "loyal to an informal social contract," which sounds much like what Wikipedia has developed, although we do not think of Wikipedia collaborators as hackers. Part of what Steven Levy described as "the hacker ethic" is to "Mistrust authority — promote decentralization,"[8] which sounds much like what my student said in class last spring about the freedom of knowledge. Mistrust is not bad and can lend itself to good analysis, a hermeneutic of suspicion, but how do we explicate the bias of mistrust from the entries of information in Wikipedia?

Hacking is a pejorative term, and what is evident from a notice on Wikipedia about vandalism is that there is a form of hacking going on there. As the website states :

The open philosophy of most wikis — of allowing anyone to edit content — does not ensure that editors are well intentioned. Wiki vandalism is a problem for wikis. The approach of making damage easy to undo rather than attempting to prevent damage has been characterized as soft security. Many editors of wiki sites tend to have good intentions, although on larger wiki sites, vandalism can go unnoticed for a period of time.

All of this only brings up more questions for higher education. How do the owners of Wikipedia know "many editors" have good intentions? Is their data scrutinized? If so, How and by whom exactly? Brad Stone says, "as [Wikipedia] has grown, the enthusiasm of its contributors provides a natural check on inaccuracies. Every month, 1,900 users make at least 100 edits each to the site. For no pay, these 'Wikipediaholics' typically monitor every change made to the topics that interest them."[9] What are the credentials of such "Wikipediaholics" and what has their enthusiasm got to do with accuracy?

My experience of this "Everyman" encyclopedia is that it was accepted by students quite quickly. Why? Is it a phenomenon no more irritating than CliffsNotes? At least CliffsNotes include selected bibliographies. As I say to my students, "Your neighbor, who may be on drugs, can go onto Wikipedia.com and edit information. Is this an ethical standard for scholarship?" One student pointed out that I may be on drugs for all he knows! There is relativism at its best. No one is better or worse than the next. Many who use Wikipedia are declaring: Truth is not a fixed reality. This is of epistemological interest and we need to investigate.

Part of the ethical dilemma in pedagogy is that we know many students will go onto Wikipedia.com at least to begin their research. It is easy. And, as we should, we tell students that if they consult any source, they must list it in their works cited. This ethical issue of "proper citing" of lousy sources is not new with student papers, but with Wikipedia.com, it is a new type of dilemma much different than CliffsNotes. It is different because we cannot know the credentials of editors, we can not readily or easily "see" errors, and we do not know whether, if we quote something from the site today, it will be there tomorrow. On the "Jesus and the Money Changers" Wikipedia site, there is an external link listed as "A Christian explanation of allegedly violent events in Jesus' life, including clearing [not cleansing] of the Temple," which is a blog of sorts. It was started by a man who does not have a scholarly background in biblical studies, but rather degrees in computer science; he asserts that we should "critically examine everything." While his personal journey to religion may be of interest to many, this site is not appropriate for student research.

After discussion and investigation with students, Wikipedia.com was found by most to be an unreliable, unscholarly, and (according to some) "creepy" site, now that they understand "collaborator" as a term that does not give them certainty. I explained to students that, because they are not yet experts, they will not notice a mistake or troublesome entry on Wikipedia. I was astounded that prior to this assignment, many students did not even know that just anyone could edit or add information to the site. This was unacceptable to them; once they understood these findings by researching Wikipedia.com themselves, they agreed the site would not be a proper source for university research. We all agreed that we have a moral duty as scholars to list Wikipedia.com if it had been consulted at all, although many students decided they would now drop this site from their scholarly pursuits. The foreign student reserved the right to believe that Wikipedia.com was the messiah who had come to save those who were oppressed by the government and kept from important information. We all agreed never to forget his point or the lesson learned during this spring class.

In conclusion, Wikipedia is not a proper source for university research and certainly not for biblical studies. It is not definitive because its system of "checks and balances" is itself questionable, and those who edit information have no substantiated credibility. Where in some settings cooperative websites may be beneficial, there is nothing to support Wikipedia as beneficial for student research. However, using Wikipedia as a learning tool is a good thing, and I hope others will investigate "open" collaborative knowledge in comparison with "closed" or expert knowledge and the value of each. This would be a positive use of Wikipedia in the university setting.

Janet M. Giddings, San Jose, California

Notes
[1] Raymond Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 35.

[2] Danyel Fisher, "Social Spaces: Online and Offline Conversations," in From Usenet to CoWebs: Interacting with Social Information Spaces (ed. Christopher Leug and Danyel Fisher; London: Springer-Verlag, 2003), 14.

[3] Daniel Terdiman, "Can German Engineering Fix Wikipedia? " C/Net News.Com

[4] Nora Miller, "Wikipedia and the Disappearing 'Author'," ETC: A Review of General Semantics 62/1 (2005): 37.

[5] Brock Read, "Wikimania Participants Give the Online Encyclopedia Mixed Reviews," The Chronicle of Higher Education (Sep. 1, 2006).

[6] Philip Evans, "The Wiki Factor, " BizEd (Jan/Feb 2006): 28-32.

[7] Andrea Foster, "An Online Encyclopedia That Anyone Can Edit Ponders Creating a University," The Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan. 6, 2006).

[8] Howard Reingold, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (Cambridge, MA.: Perseus Publishing, 2002), 47.

[9] Brad Stone, "It's Like a Blog, But It's a Wiki," Newsweek (Nov. 1, 2006).

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Citation: Janet M. Giddings, " Ethical Issues in Pedagogy: Wikipedia," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=601

 
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