Research in the digital age

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Recently my poetry workshop instructor assigned the class to choose, research, and summarize a myth, using at least two sources. While she cautioned students that we may need to actually go to a library in person to read material, she also mentioned that Wikipedia counts as one source and may itself give other useful references. With my background in science, I have never heard a professor come close to endorsing Wikipedia. Although I use it quite frequently while I’m writing, I wouldn’t consider that something to brag about. Sort of like using a recipe that calls for canned soup.

The mandate to validate our sources in academia may not need to extend to learning a myth to use in a poem, a bad poem at that. But the question of valid research is still a concern to scholars. Too much scrutiny or screening in academic publication means that information is available only to academics. Too little screening and we have misinformation promulgated as fact to a less discerning general public. But one of the magnificent benefits of the internet is, surely, access to freely and widely distributed information without censorship.

According to Wikipedia, here’s a description (a meta-description?) of Wikipedia:

Wikipedia (i /ˌwɪkɪˈpiːdi.ə/ or i /ˌwɪkiˈpiːdi.ə/ wik-i-pee-dee-ə) is a free, web-based, collaborative, multilingual encyclopedia project supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Its 18 million articles (over 3.6 million in English) have been written collaboratively by volunteers around the world, and almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the site.

Indeed a democratic process, but doesn't sound research require more rigor?

Many academics simply want no part of the outdated, incomplete, or inaccurate writing in Wikipedia. In answer to this dilemma, and recognizing that many millions more people read Wikipedia than academic journals, the Association for Psychological Science has joined with the Wikimedia Foundation to improve the quality of articles on psychology on Wikipedia. They have developed software tools to make articles and data easier to format and edit, as well as a social networking angle for scholars with shared interests. Also, they recommend using Wikipedia in class assignments—not to do research, but to write better articles and post them on Wikipedia.

I wonder if other scholarly organizations will embrace Wikipedia, as all of us are adapting to so many other new technologies and media. None of these innovations will make my poetry better any time soon. But I suspect I may be learning more and faster these days.