Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Ramble, Ramble, Ramble

By now, you all know that I have begun my blogging career as an assignment for a course in web based information services. I have just completed this week's set of readings, which were focused on issues of authorship associated with collaboratively edited, researched, and compiled information sites such as, of course, Wikipedia.
My whole life, I have been one of those people who constantly has knowledge gaps that I feel need to be rectified immediately. My dad used to respond to "Why...?" with "So little girls will ask questions" because my queries were so frequent and often far out of the realm of his expertise. Now that I'm a big girl, I can answer my own questions. Enter Wikipedia. I love it. I use it everyday. Just today, I desperately needed to know the difference between black tie and white tie dress codes. This morning, I used it to determine the nutritional value of cucumbers. I've been using Wikipedia to answer my random questions since about my junior year of undergrad, and it has worked famously. I've always known that its entries should be taken with a grain of salt, as anyone who wants to can change/add/remove information from the entries with incredible ease. I would never use Wikipedia for a source in a formal paper (duh!) but I think perusing it (with a critical eye) for background information prior to beginning research is perfectly acceptable.
However, after completing this week's reading for my class, I am more than a little bit confused about collaboratively edited compilations of information such as Wikipedia. One of the articles was a scathing indictment of Web 2.0 in general written by Michael Gorman, former president of ALA, who was blogging for Encycolpedia Britannica. I couldn't help but think of Steven Colbert's coining of the term "truthiness," to describe something that one knows intuitively, without any formal research from some boring old book. Gorman's blog post warns specifically against what he clearly perceives to be the "truthiness" of Web 2.0. With the advent of Web 2.0 comes the potential for people to post whatever they think they know and pass it off as the truth. To me, it would seem that every text, print or not, must be read critically. The reader is half the text, in other words, the perception of its contents is, in large part, the essence of the text.
I fear I have been rambling, and since I don't really want to stop, I am going to relay a story which has very little to do with the subject at hand. It is fairly amusing though, and does tie in in some way, though I'm not sure how. A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine completed her doctoral work in History of Science and got a job teaching an intro level course in her field to undergraduate juniors and seniors at the state school from which she had just graduated. She got through the fall semester just fine. Her students, thought mostly math and science majors, seemed to grasp the material and had passable writing skills. They all made acceptable grades, and so my friend, a very sweet, bright, academic genius who has some mousy qualities, embarked on the spring semester considerably emboldened by the success of her previous students. This batch of students, however, weren't the scholars that their predecessors had been. When their professor began to grade their final exams, several essays which she had allowed to be completed "take home," she noticed almost immediately that something was rotten in Denmark with this bunch of papers. Not only were huge chunks of text identical from paper to paper, there were obvious font and size differences within the same paper, and (get ready) in many of the papers, the text seemed strangely familiar to the professor. That's right, not only were the papers blatantly plagiarized, but they were taken verbatim from a Wikipedia article on which the professor herself had done an extensive edit. Nineteen of thirty-six final exams were not the student's own work, and most of them had used at least a portion of this Wikipedia article, which caused them not only to be guilty of plagiarism, but of plagiarizing directly from the person grading their work. The material I recently finished reading for my class dealt mainly with the anonymity of Wikipedia as a negative thing. Although the students would have still been caught plagiarizing had it not been the teacher's own work from which they copied, the fact that they were completely unaware of whose ideas and information they were stealing due to the anonymity of Wikipedia, sure makes for a good story.


Angela said...

good defense of wikipedia. I love it too but, really, who doesn't? It knows everything! Do cucumbers have any nutritional value?

Kirsten said...

Wow. I've got friends and family members in various disciplines in academia, but I've never heard of most of a class plagiarizing to this extent. Crazy.