About a week before I left for my vacation, Paul Pival, Ken Varnum and David Rothman had an interesting distributed discussion about how students are perceiving the research literature and are evaluating the quality of documents given that, online, everything looks virtually the same (and even more so when you’re looking at an RSS feed through an aggregator). Although I’d wanted to respond to what they’d been discussing, I didn’t have time and filed it away in the closet of my brain. I’d more or less forgotten about it until this week on my reference shift.

I had a student come to the reference desk who was doing a paper on a certain historical photograph. He needed eight sources about this photograph and all he had so far was something from the Wikipedia. I had assumed that he was just using the Wikipedia entry to get basic background information — who the people in the photo were, etc. We found some stuff on the photo in JSTOR and Academic Search Premiere and I also pointed him to some books in the library that described the historical event that this picture was depicting. He then started asking me about how to cite all this and I told him how to cite stuff from databases and from the Web. He then asked me “I’ve been trying to find the author of this article from the Wikipedia so I can cite it. Do you know where I can find it?” Yikes! I explained to the student that the Wikipedia is written and edited by everyone and anyone who wants to, so hundreds or thousands of people (some reliable, some not) could have contributed to this article. I asked him how he felt about using that in his paper. “Ummm… ok.” I was shocked that he still planned to use it, even though he knew that the information may or may not be true. Yes, I know that more likely than not, the Wikipedia article was right, but this student really didn’t care if it was right or wrong. He just wanted to get those 8 sources as quickly as possible and didn’t really care how “authoritative” they were.

I guess what surprised me the most about this was that his teacher had never mentioned what kinds of sources she wanted (or didn’t want) in the paper — what was acceptable and what was unacceptable.

To recap what Paul, Ken and David discussed: Paul started the discussion by talking about how flat the world of research literature looks to someone who has only seen it online. And I agree. Students don’t know what to look for to determine if the resource they are using in their paper is from a scholarly publication, a trade magazine, or some yahoo’s very professional-looking, but utterly worthless Web site. Paul thinks that students need more of a sense of where these resources are physically coming from so that they can understand the differences. Ken agrees with Paul’s assertions and remembers his own experience, in the pre-full-text database era, when he himself likely picked the three easiest-to find resources without thinking about authority. Ken then muses about what could be done with RSS feeds to indicate to people how authoritative the source is.

David had a somewhat different take on this. He argues that this issue is not a result of so many of our resources being online, but that it is just another manifestation of the age-old struggle to get students to be critical of information resources. Even when we only had print resources available, we still had students who didn’t care (just as Ken said) whether the sources they were choosing were the most authoritative ones. David argues “all that has changed is the container and/or delivery method.” David argues that teaching students about authority by trying to make online resources emulate print resources is pointless because more and more, students will be accessing resources online. To me, it’s like teaching people born in the 1930s about cars by relating them to horse and buggies. It might have worked to explain it that way to their parents who grew up with horses and buggies (and that’s why we have the term horsepower), but it makes no sense for people who have no relationship to that reality and never will. What we need to do is teach them the subtle clues they need to determine whether an article is authoritative or whether it is not something they should be citing in their paper. Because, no matter how similar things may look, there are plenty of clues that will let someone know whether an article is something they should be using in their paper or not.

I taught a few English 101 information literacy classes last semester and I incorporated a little activity into the class. I broke the class up into four groups and gave each of them an article on a certain topic. One was from the Wikipedia, one was from a government Website, one was from Newsweek and was found in a database, and the last one was from a peer-reviewed journal article found in the same database. I asked the students to tell me if they thought this was a good article that they’d use in a research paper. All of them, including the Wikipedia folks, thought that their article looked good enough to use (the only group that was even a bit skeptical of their work was the one with the report from a government Website). I then told them about the things to look for when evaluating a Website, article, or other resource for quality. At the end, I had them go back and critique each article. The students could then see that they had no idea who wrote the Wikipedia entry or what the qualifications were of the person who wrote the Newsweek article. They saw that the article from the government Website was sponsored by the government and written by two PhDs. They came out with a much better sense of what to look for when they’re doing their research on the Web or in the databases.

But the question is, even with that knowledge, do they really care whether what they are citing is authoritative? In most cases, the answer is no. That student whom I educated at the reference desk about the Wikipedia still may use it in his paper. Why? Because he needs eight sources and his teacher never told him that he couldn’t use the Wikipedia as one of those sources. What does he care about authority? Ultimately, I think if the professors keep accepting stuff from the Wikipedia and other less-than-authoritative sources of information, students will continue not to care where they get their information from. I hear the professors complain about students turning in stuff with citations from the Wikipedia, but until they mark their grade down for it, the students will continue to cite it. We can educate these students until the cows come home, but ultimately, we don’t grade their papers. It’s the folks who give them a grade who really can shape the sort of research the students do.

There is an instructor in the Criminal Justice program with whom I work frequently on developing information literacy instruction for the distance program in Justice Administration (he’s the program director). He also teaches undergraduate classes, and some of what I’ve been telling him the past year has definitely had an impact. He is now asking his students to attach the abstract or front page of every resource they are citing in their paper. That way he can see if it is of sufficient quality and if it is even relevant to their paper topic. I think that’s brilliant. In so many classes, so long as you have a bibliography, you’re in good shape. So many professors just don’t check. While I’m sure his students grumble about it, he is doing them such a huge favor because they will be so much better equipped than other students to do scholarly research in subsequent classes.

I agree that it’s important for us to teach information literacy skills to students. But if we do this and the professors continue to accept garbage citations from their students, I don’t think much of what we say is going to have much of an impact.

Update: I just wanted to make it clear that I don’t think the Wikipedia is useless in research. I often use it with students to get background information on a topic (just as I do Google) and to find links to more authoritative sources on the subject. But I do not think it should be cited in a college or higher-level paper for two reasons: 1) the information has not been verified and 2) I don’t think college students should be citing any encyclopedia in their paper.