The Chronicle Review

Wikipedia Comes of Age

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle Review

January 07, 2011

It seems like a lifetime ago when I would stop into a Barnes and Noble to look up a fact in one of the books in the reference section. Or call a film-buff friend to settle some disagreement about who starred in a movie. But what seems like a lifetime was actually only a short time ago.

The pre-Internet "phone a friend" world that marked those days faded with the rise of the Internet and, more specifically, with the spectacular success of Wikipedia, which marks its 10-year anniversary this month. In the decade since its launch, we have struggled as a culture to keep up with the changes resulting from the enormous paradigm shift Wikipedia has created. But 10 years of perspective is not without its advantages. I would argue that we are now in a position to catch our breath and break old molds to take advantage of Wikipedia's greater potential.

We all acknowledge that the Internet is evolving at a dizzying pace. From the point of view of information delivery, it is fascinating to watch the way in which layers of authority have begun to emerge. That development should come as no surprise—a natural progression in any new knowledge system is for it to divide into layers of information authority. Not all information is created equal. The bottom layers (the most ubiquitous, whose sources are the most ephemeral, and with the least amount of validation) lead to layers with greater dependability, all the way to the highest layers, made up mostly of academic resources maintained and validated by academic publishers that use multiple peer reviews, trained editors, and scholarly reviewers. When the system is effective, the layers serve to reinforce one another through clear pathways that allow queries to move from one layer to another with little resistance.

The rapid evolution of Wikipedia in relation to academic research demonstrates that phenomenon. Not long ago, publishers like myself would groan when someone talked about how Wikipedia was effectively replacing reference publishing, especially for students. But my perspective has changed. As Wikipedia has grown, it has become increasingly clear that it functions as a necessary layer in the Internet knowledge system, a layer that was not needed in the analog age. A study carried out by Alison Head and Michael Eisenberg, published in a March 2010 edition of the Web journal First Monday, surveyed university students about their research habits and, in particular, how they begin research projects. Most of the nearly 2,500 students who responded said they consult Wikipedia, but when questioned more deeply, it became clear that they use it for, as one student put it, "pre-research." In other words, to gain context on a topic, to orient themselves, students start with Wikipedia.

That makes perfect sense. Through user-generated efforts, Wikipedia is comprehensive, current, and far and away the most trustworthy Web resource of its kind. It is not the bottom layer of authority, nor the top, but in fact the highest layer without formal vetting. In this unique role, it therefore serves as an ideal bridge between the validated and unvalidated Web.

Some are concerned that students and researchers are confused about the authority of Wikipedia, using it interchangeably with peer-reviewed scholarly material, but I would argue that just the opposite is happening. That such a high percentage of students in the study indicated they do not cite Wikipedia as a formal source, or admit to their professors they use it, confirms that they are very aware of the link it represents in the information-authority chain.

That last fact is critical. For a knowledge system to function effectively, its users must have an intuitive understanding of the layers it contains. Today, when starting a serious research project, students are faced with an exponentially larger store of information than previous generations, and they need new tools to cut through the noise. Intuitively they are using Wikipedia as one of those tools, creating a new layer of information-filtering to help orient them in the early stages of serious research. As a result, Wikipedia's role as a bridge to the next layer of academic resources is growing stronger.

How is that happening? Take the case of a project undertaken by the academic music community. In 2006 a large group of musicologists began discussing, on an academic listserv, their students' use of Wikipedia. One scholar issued a challenge: Wikipedia is where students are starting research, whether we like it or not, so we need to improve its music entries. That call to arms resonated, and music scholars worked hard to improve the quality of Wikipedia entries and make sure that bibliographies and citations pointed to the most reliable resources. As a result, Oxford University Press experienced a tenfold increase in Wikipedia-referred traffic on its music-research site Grove Music Online. Research that began on Wikipedia led to (the more advanced and peer-validated) Grove Music, for researchers who were going on to do in-depth scholarly work. The rise in Grove traffic alerted me to the music Wikipedia project, but I assume that other such projects that have passed me by yielded similar positive results.

My opinion of Wikipedia, like the tool itself, has radically evolved over time. Not only am I now supportive of Wikipedia, but I feel that it can play a vital role in formal educational settings—something that five years ago I never would have imagined saying. To go further, while I do agree that teaching information literacy is important, I do not agree with those who argue that the core challenge is to educate students and researchers about how to use Wikipedia. As we have seen, students intuitively understand much of that already.

The key challenge for the scholarly community, in which I include academic publishers such as Oxford University Press, is to work actively with Wikipedia to strengthen its role in "pre-research." We need to build stronger links from its entries to more advanced resources that have been created and maintained by the academy.

It is not an easy task to overcome the prejudices against Wikipedia in academic circles, but accomplishing that will serve us all and solidify an important new layer of knowledge in the online-information ecosystem. Wikipedia's first decade was marked by its meteoric rise. Let's mark its second decade by its integration into the formal research process.

Casper Grathwohl is vice president and publisher of digital and reference content for Oxford University Press.