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Volume 72, Issue 136, Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Opinion

Wikipedia not a serious research source

Zach Lee 
Opinion Columnist

Each year, as hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of college seniors step away from the classroom and into the job market, those former students and future leaders use their undergraduate degrees as evidence that they are highly educated and motivated people. College diplomas open countless doors and help to create numerous opportunities for the people who have earned them, and they should. 

The average college graduate is saddled with $19,000 in student loans by the time he or she walks across the stage. 

That kind of serious investment -- especially in addition to the time students put into their studies -- deserves some serious returns in job choices and salaries.

But students who haven't learned some basic lessons are endangering a good number of those investments.

At a time when increased access to higher education means that -- using a simple supply and demand model -- undergraduate degrees are not as valuable as they once were, smart and dedicated students need to do all they can to separate themselves from the herd. 

For some, this means taking on extra internships; for others it means going on to graduate or professional school. 

The typical students who are thousands of dollars in debt don't necessarily have those choices, however, and they rely on universities and other students to keep up the appearance that college is arduous preparation for the real world.

Wikipedia is not a serious source in the real world.

Besides the fact that anyone, anywhere, without any knowledge or with any personal agenda, can change the entries in Wikipedia, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales summed it up best at a conference in June 2006 when he said, "For God's sake, you're in college; don't cite the encyclopedia."

As a basic resource, Wikipedia can be surprisingly valuable. It can point students in the right direction if they're learning about something for the first time, and tidbits of interesting analysis can be found in many of the nearly 2 million entries. It is not an academic source, however, and it has no place in either formal research papers or informal WebCT posts.

This generation of students has grown up in an era of rapidly changing technology, and as a whole, it tends to embrace technological advances. But that is not always a good thing. 

Mistaking Wikipedia for a scholarly resource is along the same lines of mistaking MySpace or Facebook as a secure hiding place for pictures or sentiments job applicants don't want employers to see. 

In theory, the logic that students perfect in college would lead them to keep the scandalous photographs and stories away from a public forum that anyone -- including prospective employers -- can see. If employers have a right to make new hires submit to drug tests because they want to prevent someone from coming into work high, it should be obvious that they have the right to see what information new hires have put in public view in order to prevent future embarrassment.

It's not obvious to everyone, though, and students who misuse Wikipedia deflate the value of everyone else's college education. Their diploma looks the same, but they will go into the real world better prepared to trust the results of a Google search than to investigate and solve problems. Unless other students take action to discourage such lazy and ineffective methods, that $19,000 investment won't be worth as much as it once was.

Lee, an English/Spanish senior, 
can be reached via dccampus@mail.uh.edu

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