Students look up to online encyclopedia
Because anyone can edit the content, teachers urge caution.
By JOANNA KWONG
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
If George Wang wants to know about something, he knows exactly where to look: Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia with a twist. It's free to view and edit.
"It's a great way to burn time, and it's surprisingly good for some research," said Wang, a senior at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, Calif., who views the site almost daily.
And it's growing in both popularity and in content. The site has 3.1 million articles and receives roughly 2.5 billion page views per month, according to the site's parent company, Wikimedia.
Many teens who once cracked open the books for research and random trivia now turn to Wikipedia.
"I'll use it to look up one thing but find myself surfing for hours because I'll keep getting sidetracked by the article's links," said Marcus Tang, a senior at Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, Calif.
Wikimedia publicist Elisabeth Bauer attributes Wikipedia's success to its evolving nature. Anyone can view the site and make changes. Anyone with a free account can create new articles. These changes are instantaneous, allowing events to appear in Wikipedia as they happen.
The history of changes is also viewable, allowing anyone to see how an article has been changed over time.
"If you send a well-written posting to a Web forum or usenet, a few people will read it and then it is buried in the archives," Bauer said in an e-mail interview. "If you add a well-written article to Wikipedia, it stays and is expanded and improved upon."
But some educators warn that Wikipedia's "anyone-can-edit" policy can be detrimental to its credibility.
"I don't think students should trust Wikipedia alone," said Bridget Kowalczyk, an information literary specialist at San Jose State University Library.
"Students love Wikipedia, but I believe they need to verify all their sources with a scholarly source, like databases," she said.
Katie Martin, an English teacher at American High School in Fremont, Calif., said that though while students often use the site for research papers, it is important for them to learn how to evaluate sources.
Both Kowalczyk and Martin point to a recent Wikipedia controversy as a reason for their skepticism. In a May 2005 hoax, false statements were posted in the biography of journalist John Seigenthaler Sr. Some of the statements even tied him to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.
Wikimedia deals with these issues as they come up, a company official said.
"Wikipedia might -- and does -- contain factual errors for various reasons, and we try to address them one by one," said Mathias Schindler, a Wikimedia publicist, in an e-mail interview. In some cases, an error is also removed from the article's "history."
But that doesn't stop interested readers like Wang from continuing to use the site.
"I agree with definitely taking everything there with a grain of salt," Wang said. "But really, that should be done with any source."
Joanna Kwong is a senior at American High School in Fremont, Calif.