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Avoid Wikipedia, warns Wikipedia chief

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"the stupid media watches everything I do now" - Jimmy Wales

Wikipedia co-founder founder Jimmy 'Jimbo' Wales has warned students not to refer to Wikipedia, reports the US education weekly The Chronicle.

Wales said that he gets about 10 e-mail messages a week from students who complain that Wikipedia has earned them fail grades.

"They say, 'Please help me. I got an F on my paper because I cited Wikipedia'" and the information turned out to be wrong, he says. But he said he has no sympathy for their plight, noting that he thinks to himself: "For God sake, you're in college; don't cite the encyclopedia," the journal reports.

Wales didn't, alas, suggest renaming the project to something more appropriate, like "Jimbo's Big Bag of Trivia", as we've advised before. He put the blame squarely on the students. And while Wikipedians love to blame everyone but themselves for their predicament, in large part, he's correct.

What's more interesting is that Wikipedian's guardians see its new found infamy as an opportunity to forge a marketing strategy for the troubled project.

Last year criticism of the site, which is popular with teenagers and the unemployed, was met with the counter-attack that the user was being morally delinquent if they failed to correct the mistakes themselves.

This view was wittily summarized by Lore Sjoberg, here, in a faux FAQ:

The person who was accused of murdering Kennedy didn't realize that it's his job to monitor his own Wikipedia entry at all times and fix mistakes. By not doing so, by allowing his entry to contain libelous information, he was in essence accusing himself of murdering Kennedy. The Wikipedia board of directors is hoping that the courts will accept this as a confession and convict him of assassination. At that point, his Wikipedia entry will be 100 percent true, proving that the system works.

Sjoberg later explained:

"Sites are the responsibility of those who choose to contribute to them. You can't pick a site and declare it to be everyone else's problem. In the end, though, this isn't Wikipedia's fault. Last I checked, there's nothing on the site saying 'Wikipedia: The Online Encyclopedia You're Obliged to Edit.'"

Slumming it with Jimbo

So now the second line of defense takes prominence (we ran up a a taxonomy of popular Wikipedians' whinges here last year) - and it's a variation on caveat lector. It stresses the fact that no resource can be trusted. You can see this line of argument being practiced in the comments beneath the Chronicle's article. Whether the idea is to make people so distrustful of resource material that they need a tinfoil hat before they embark on their research, or whether it's simply to condition them to the low-grade, poorly written material found on Wikipedia we don't know. If it's the latter, it brings to mind the beleagured Tourist department of a rundown and polluted seaside town, urging visitors to "Enjoy Our Beach! Ignore the radioactive oil slicks!".

And so, perhaps, by setting the bar so low, then Wikipedia may be redeemed. You can see why we've characterized the project as essentially Utopian. This is a highly optimistic strategy, if nothing else.

But if the purpose is to promote Wikipedia as a "jumping off point" for studies, then the advice may be even more harmful than we first supposed. Students have two great resources at their disposable: a mine of material that isn't and never will appear on the World Wide Web, the primary plankton for Wikipedians. And even better, helpful librarians will be able to tailor a bespoke bibliography for the student, bringing years of resource mining experience and specialist skills to the task. If your "jumping off point" for a project is such a librarian, then intelligence will reward intelligence. If your "jumping off point" is Wikipedia, and its over-reliance on web dross, then stupidity will reward stupidity.

We may as well let them get on with it - and let nature take its course.

But ironies abound, and you're probably reaching for the mailto: already with your favourites. Here are just a couple we enjoyed.

While academics may balk at the suggestion, the educational system rewards rote cutting and pasting, leaving little room for critical thinking. This pervades both junk lit-crit and junk science, which are increasingly the flavour of the day throughout academia. So what could be a more appropriate resource for an ignorant and lazy student, than reference material prepared exclusively by other ignorant and lazy students?

We also have one piece of advice for any student insane enough to cite Wikipedia: have patience. Wait until you have secured academic tenure, or, say, an untouchable bench seat in the circuit courts.

Then you can be as insane as you like, and quote Wikipedia to your heart's content. And no one will be able to do a damn thing about it. ®

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