On Wikipedia as research method: why not?

The class I take–as in, the one I should be focusing on at the moment rather than doing exactly what I’m doing right now–is sandwitched in between two presumedly highschool level English classes. During one of those classes, I walked in on the tail end of a discussion between the instructor and a student on a research project she was working on. I don’t recall if I heard exactly what she was researching, but the student seemed to be having some issues with coming up with material for that project–particularly online material. Apparently, the only semi-solid resource she was able to track down online was Wikipedia. To which, I could pretty much tell the instructor was doing all manner of shaking her head. that was pretty much confirmed when she escentially advised the poor girl to back away from pretty much anything to do with online material so far as research goes, on account of just about anyone can edit and/or create the material and so there’s no actual honest to god verification of that material. She meant it specificly in Wikipedia’s case, but the impression I got is it could be just as valid for, say, a website/community blog that focused specificly on one specialized subject–like, say, some of the sites hanging out in the sidebar over there. And it kind of got me to thinking. Isn’t that the point?

The disadvantage to a Wikipedia, according to instructor lady, is just about anyone who thinks they know something about a subject can drop an edit on a page related to that subject and have it reflect as part of the “official” record on that subject. I didn’t jump into that conversation, but I was thinking–and apparently I’m not alone with that thought–that that’d be probably one of wikipedia’s strongest advantages, if you were the type to give a thing like that an advantage. I say that knowing for every mainstream subject with 40 or 50 people who actually know their stuff, there’s another 60 to 100 who love the opportunity to theorize, criticize and just generally let it be known they consider themselves experts in the same. Which was probably what the instructor was referring to. But here’s the thing, and this is what I find nifty about a Wikipedia-like environment. More often than not, the fringe folks who can’t actually back up what they’re tossing on an otherwise mainstream page will find they’ve been escentially outvoted and the completely whacked out edits don’t usually last long. Equally usually the actual, solid material is more often than not verified by linking to places where John Q. User can’t create an account for the specific purpose of scraping the record clean. So even if you wouldn’t quote directly from Wikipedia (who would, given the particular passage you quote might not be there tomorrow), you can usually use it as a springboard to move you to places who’s exerpts you borrow will probably still be there in 4 or 5 years, barring a situation wherein the whole damn site blows up.

There’s actually a not entirely objective reason why I’m in the pro-Wikipedia-as-research-method camp. It dates back to before the average person knew what the hell a Wikipedia was. As a research project of my very own when I was doing the highschool thing, I did a profile type deal on what hockey was like in the days of gordie Howe, and ended up overlapping it with a transition to the days when Gretzky pretty much owned the place. The internet was still new enough that the trend of slapping “cyber” on a word and adding it to the criminal code with tripple the sentence hadn’t quite started to become a trend yet, but old enough that places like encyclopedia Britanica were starting to see the light and putting up at least some of their info for online consumption. I actually sort of wish I’d kept a copy of that paper around just so I could remind myself exactly which online sources I scraped for it, but that was several computers and a couple floppy disks ago. But I do remember the traditional dance of hit the library, come back with an armload of textbooks, flip through them, curse and do it all over again was escentially supplemented with stops at magazines with online archives, NHL related stats and history websites, and other people’s biographies of the man in between trips. And every internet source had a URL, exactly like every textbook source had page/chapter numbers and all that jazze. As I recall, even though most people were still trying wicked hard to wrap their heads around this whole internet thing, no one flipped their stack on account of online means somehow less verifiable than an actual, physical copy of the exact same material.

And yet I sat pretty much where I’m sitting now and listened to that conversation wondering if, assuming I’d had her as my English teacher in those days, I’d have passed the class considering my own methods. Surprisingly fewer people actually live at the library these days for research type things, unless they’ve established they can’t pull what they need for material from, well, anywhere else. Why? The simple answer is it’s freaking 2013. there’s internet access pretty well freaking everywhere. And with projects like Google Books having been ruled not in violation of copyrights–suck it, authors’ guild–there’s increasing likelyhood the exact material you’d have gone to the library for a few years ago will relatively soon be searchable, if only in small sections–which would probably suit quoting for research purposes just fine to begin with. That, combined with something like a Wikipedia to potentially get you started with at the very least links to more solidly verifiable–and, apparently, research-appropriate–material, can’t do much but be a huge favour to someone with a nack for finding pieces and fitting them where they go to get across a convincing position. And the only thing I can actually think is where would the harm be in that? Instructor lady figures it’s all over the place. Part of me hopes she runs into this–I wouldn’t mind seeing her show her work.

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