Friday, 30 July 2010

References And Resources

A very interesting discussion is going on via the Dinosaur Mailing List (it's also on the Vert Paleo Mailing List, but there isn't a nice linkable archive for that one). How to cite information in Wikipedia? As such threads are wont to do, it has become more a discussion of whether Wikipedia is reliable, and whether it should be allowed by lecturers and teachers in students' work.

I teach three main groups of students: A-Level, GCSE and BTEC. I expect my GCSE students to be able to use information from my lecture notes, their textbook and any extra handouts I give them. For A-Level students, with the exception of their coursework, that's pretty much the same situation, although I like them to use a range of textbooks if they can. The biggest issues I have are with the BTEC students, on a 100% coursework programme, and when I'm doing coursework with the A-Level kids.

Wikipedia is sometimes an absolute blessing for teaching. I have found high-resolution images of hazard symbols, beautiful human anatomy diagrams, and superb chemical formula PNG files, which fit very nicely into my lecture notes. Used correctly, it is an excellent first port of call, and the key is to look for the sources cited on the Wikipedia page in question, before directing one's attention there.

To this end, for A2 coursework, where the students carried out independent fieldwork, they were banned from citing a Wikipedia source. AS and A2 students are required by the syllabus to evaluate their sources, and so an opportunity presents itself very early on to discuss some of the pitfalls of using Wikipedia. I recall seeing an article some time ago stating that the Spartans won the Battle of Thermopylae due to their use of superior laser weapons[*].

However, I have not, up to this point, made such a restriction on my BTEC students. Perhaps this is because, in general, the A-Level students have grasped the idea of Harvard referencing and reliability of sources more quickly (had it not been for safeguarding, I could have hugged the few BTEC students who, by the end of their first year, had managed to correctly cite a textbook). In reality, I suspect it's been down to laziness on my part. I have to mark one 3000-word paper from each A-Level student each year. I have had to look at, on average, 25 pieces of work from each BTEC student, and I've had double the number of students on the BTEC course. It takes energy to remind students each and every time that Wikipedia is not an unquestionably accurate source.

This is no excuse, of course. And to this end, I am contemplating placing a restriction on my BTEC second year students for this year. I think, however, that I will allow them to use material on Wikimedia Commons, as much of this is original material not available elsewhere.

As for how to cite things, I have found Neil's Toolbox to be a great website for helping students make their Harvard references. I put it in all my Moodle course pages, and spend time with all the students checking that they have the hang of the system. My A2 and BTEC students have all cited primary literature too, which is quite an achievement at this stage. I can't say I'd have known the first thing about primary literature when I was doing A-Levels, let alone be able to cite it.

[*]If you don't know why this is so utterly wrong, then there is no hope...


  1. "I can't say I'd have known the first thing about primary literature when I was doing A-Levels, let alone be able to cite it."

    It wasn't that long ago when people who weren't physically near a university library would have had no access to primary literature. Now, anyone with Internet can dip into vast volumes of original scholarship.

    It's a great time to raise the bar on expectations.

  2. The problems that people see with Wikipedia (the easily editable and frequently vandalised pages) are often self-corrected by the userbase, and conversation about those pitfalls often overlook the real problem with the site: it's a second hand resource.

    Fortunately it knows this, and it tires to correct it by insisting on references itself, and for that reason, it's a great foundation form which to launch literature searches.

    Take, for example the page for Pisanosaurus - it's simple and not very interesting and temptingly plagiarisable, but it gives information and cites its references - with DOIs and IBSNs.

    I'd be telling your studehnts to never ever quote Wikipedia, but to always use it, scroll to the very bottom, and take all those references to Web of Science.

  3. That's something I should have emphasised more, Debi, so thanks for this. The hardest part is undoubtedly getting the students to go that one step beyond Wikipedia to seeing what the authors of the Wikipedia page have referenced.

    I wonder if keeping a public note of my own resources and references for each unit would help - it might be an example of good practice for them.

    And Zen, I was just thinking about that - we hear so much about how exams are getting easier and "kids are getting thicker", but the students are now exposed to research first-hand, especially via open source. They learn aspects of physiology that were cutting-edge research that was almost unknown outside of the journals when I was an A-Level student, and the How Science Works part of the curriculum gives them summaries of primary literature (of course I like to find them the actual papers to read as inevitably the textbooks mess up the summary somehow).

  4. If only professors spent as much time improving Wikipedia as complaining about it, perhaps this argument would be moot. I realize that's a rather flippant reaction to a genuine concern, but I prefer not to get mired down in quagmires such as this.

  5. Ron, I teach biology and general science. How many Wikipedia articles do you think are contained within that field? For professors, lecturers and teachers, it is as much as we can do to correct our own students' work, without trying to check every single page that our students could refer to for a given assignment. And for every correction we do, many others could reverse it. Wikipedia's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.

    I have a hard enough job picking out all the errors in the exam board-issued textbook (and there are many). If I at least persuade students to examine the sources and to evaluate the reliability of the sources, then they can think for themselves and figure out which sets of information they find via Wikipedia are reliable and something on which they can base their own hypotheses and conclusions.

  6. You're right, of course. It's a one-to-many issue and there aren't enough teachers. I sympathize, I teach too. I don't have a good answer. I won't ban Wikipedia for my students, though. Caveat emptor.

  7. I remember an excellent exercise that my high-school writing teacher had us do when we were learning about using scholarly sources, where we had to find a gap or error in a wikipedia page, scrounge up pertinent information, and correct/fill it in with a source. We had already had some experience doing citations, but it was enlightening to see how to cite one specific piece of information in a "real-world" (to me, at least) scenario.

    I think that Ron's point is more about a general effort on the part of academics to participate in Wikipedia. It really does benefit from the participation of experts, and if we're going to complain at all about the sorry state of popular knowledge, it makes sense to work to improve one of the single largest sources of general information on the planet. This is not to say that one should check every wikipedia article a student "cites" to make sure it's completely accurate, but it does mean that one should try (with whatever resources are convenient) to correct any mistakes or fill in any gaps one runs across in articles in one's field.

  8. I find that Wikipedia is sometimes the only link for certain subjects (usually places or locations). If the page is poor, I don't use it; if it's mediocre to good, I'll link to it. Of course, who knows what that link changes to later. I hope that people who follow any of my Wikipedia links (on blog) will travel to the bottom of the page to read the references (though I will also often link to those or reference them).

    It is quite variable!

  9. My concerns are mostly that, while most of us know what a good Wikipedia article looks like, my students haven't had the level of exposure to the full spectrum to know what is good and what is poor. Maybe the exercise Mike Mike described could be helpful in that respect.

    In time, we all learn to identify when it is safe to cross the road, and we do a (mostly) good job of it. But when we're younger and have a less developed sense of danger, our parents would just tell us not to cross the road full stop on our own. I'm not sure that's a great analogy, but it'll do...


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