Wikipedia is that online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. And it has made the headlines this week when a student created a software program that allows you to figure out who has edited articles from the history of computer IP addresses that have accessed the site. It's pretty interesting to see who has edited what.
Bibliobloggers (first by Ben Witherington III and then by Jim West) have begun commenting on this and the usefulness of Wikipedia and other internet resources for academic research. But I really must side with Mark Goodacre on this one. Good on you, Mark, for encouraging your students to engage their resources critically!
Part of the reason the internet is such a valuable resource is that it makes many resources available quickly. This enables research to be pursued critically much more readily than the perusal of print resources. Not that the internet should replace research of print resources, but the process of critical evaluation can happen so much more quickly (and broadly) using the internet. I have often found that Wikipedia touches on a wider range of issues relating to a topic (and links to related articles) that aren’t always covered by more specialist resources.
It wasn't until the last class of my second M.A. program (at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics) over a year ago that I was required to do some internet research for a class project. We were supposed to interact critically with the sources we found. While I skipped "Andy's paper" on the topic I was researching (even though he got an 'A'), I did include the Wikipedia article among other quality sources that I found. Comparing the resources allowed me to evaluate the Wikipedia article. I found that although other internet resources went into more detail and were perhaps more accurate in some respects, the Wikipedia article had value that other resources did not. And Wikipedia pointed me to other resources as well!
The unique aspect of Wikipedia that makes it attractive as a source is that it is easily editable by anybody. Although that may also be its greatest weakness, it is at least potentially a great check for accuracy and comprehensiveness. Their strict “no original research” and “neutral point-of-view” policies mean that only verifiable information is allowed. These seem to be good checks for reliability. Of course, there is always the question of the Wikipedia editors' bias.
Wikipedia doesn’t need to be ruled out as a source. But we do need to critically assess anything we read.