Academics to 'embrace Wikipedia'

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

  • Published
Wikipedia screen grab
Image caption,
Wikipedia is making the transition from mistrusted newcomer to official research tool

Students and academics at a world-leading London university want to build bridges between the Wikipedia website and formal research.

The online encyclopedia is one of the biggest resources for students, says the newly-formed Wikipedians at Imperial College.

But there is a reluctance to admit to this "elephant in the room", says the group's president, Vinesh Patel.

The group is planning an event to improve editing on Wikipedia pages.

The event to be held at Imperial College in April - the London Wikipedia Academy - is an attempt to address the often unspoken place of Wikipedia in students' research.

A known unknown

"The issue of how it's used needs to be explored, it's the most widely-used resource among students," says Mr Patel, a medical student at the university.

"Wikipedia is here to stay - it's a question of whether we come up to speed with it or try to ignore it."

Mr Patel says he wants to co-ordinate the way pages are edited by students and staff and to make the most of Wikipedia, rather than pretend it's not there.

"Students know there is an inherent unreliablity, as it's open edited. We're not trying to hide that.

"But it's a place where you can orientate yourself when you start a topic.

"The quality has improved and the readability is often second to none," he says.

But Mr Patel says there is a real gap in knowledge about how this free resource is being used.

Rather than swapping anecdotes about the use of Wikipedia, he says his group wants to move to a more evidence-based discussion about the place of Wikipedia in universities.

He always want to research how Wikipedia compares in reliability with other reference sources.

The website is not going to get any formal endorsement from Imperial College, but individual students and staff attending the conference will look at ways of improving what it offers to academic research.

In some US universities there are designated students who organise the editing of Wikipedia pages in their specialist areas.

Mr Patel also wants to use the Wikipedia model to enable students to work with museums and libraries to make more of their material accessible online.

Wikipedia, with almost 3.6 million articles, has been seen as an undeclared source of help for students' essays - but Mr Patel says that there is no reason to single out Wikipedia as a source for plagiarism.

"There are relatively sophisticated software systems to check for plagiarism.

"And is Wikipedia that different from other sources? You could plagiarise from a peer-reviewed journal. It's no more easy to plagiarise from Wikipedia."

Mr Patel says that attitudes vary sharply among academics towards Wikipedia, some receptive to its potential, some very much against it, because of its vulnerability to rogue information.

Charles Matthews, a former Cambridge maths lecturer who is set to address the meeting, has edited 200,000 items on Wikipedia, making him one of the most prolific editors of the online reference pages.

Wikipedia launched in 2001 and has 365 million readers per month.

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