Wikipedia != Encyclopaedia

I’ve been encountering interesting things this semester between my two jobs. In one case, a student’s paper was half taken from the website of the school she is applying to, and she didn’t bother changing the font to make it less evident, nor did she cite the website or give it any sort of proper credit. It was grounds for the school to decide whether or not it fell into the zero-tolerance policy the school has toward plagarism.

At my other job, I was asked to edit a school paper for one of my former writing students. It was a history paper that had to have primary sources cited in support of the arguments presented in the paper. The student had two citations (in a six-paragraph paper with roughly twenty points that needed support), and both came from Wikipedia. I asked him if his teacher allows Wikipedia to be used as a source, and he didn’t know. But he was certain the teacher wouldn’t mind simply because it was Wikipedia.

All right, so let’s cover exactly how much is wrong with these two situations. In the first case, it’s that the student failed to cite the website. Perhaps she didn’t know how. Perhaps she didn’t know where to look to find that information out. (In case you’re curious, I googled “citing web sites” and came up with all three of those links, which cite the three most common citation methods used in schools.)

In the second case, the student had poorly written citations (no author, no date, just “Wikipedia”). He then sat there and tried to argue that Wikipedia was a completely valid source. I didn’t have time to explain to him how exactly a wiki works or why Wikipedia is not a reliable source of information, but I let him know he needed to find real sources. He wasn’t very happy with that, given that his paper was already late.

Somehow, students are not being taught that websites used as sources must be cited correctly as they are somebody else’s work, and they aren’t being taught to critically evaluate the information they find on the web. Some schools and teachers adopt a zero-tolerance policy for plagiarizing from the web or just ban websites from academic papers as a whole, but I think the problem can be resolved with a little bit of education.

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