College Students Use of Wikipedia for Course Related Research

Every librarian cringes at the mere mention of the word, W-i-k-i-p-e-d-i-a.  There I said it and yes a shiver did go down my spine.  But medical librarians seem to be more sensitive to it than others.  Perhaps this because of my perspective as a medical librarian or perhaps it is because medical librarians fear the unique multiple anonymous authorship platform which drives Wikipedia’s content could have a disastrous impact for somebody using it as a medical resource. 

Alison Head and Michael Eisenberg recently published the article, “How today’s college students use Wikipedia for course-related research” (First Monday. v15 (3) March 2010), the findings of which were part of an ongoing national research study based in the University of Washington’s Information School called Project Information Literacy.

Based off of the Head’s and Eisenberg’s research, it looks like our worries that college students are using Wikipedia as their sole information source are a bit unfounded. 

It turns out Wikipedia is not the most consulted resource to find background information.  The top resources (in order) were: Course Readings, Google (finding sites other than Wikipedia), Scholarly Databases, OPAC, and Instructors.  Wikipedia was 6th after instructors.  However it was still a highly used resource, with 85% of the respondents saying they used it.

While more science students used Wikipedia than social science students and more four year college students used it compared to those enrolled in 2 year schools, 82% of those surveyed responded they use Wikipedia most often to “obtain background information or a summary of a topic.”  It seems that many of them use to as the first step to previewing their topic and to get ideas on where to get started. 

 “Students reported they could not begin their research process until they had an idea of what they were going to write about. They did not think that they could approach an instructor about an assignment, until they knew more about their topic. They did not use a scholarly research database early on, given the specificity of academic journal content.”

“Students in the sessions explained that Wikipedia entries have value in the beginning because they provide a ‘simple narrative that gives you a grasp,’ ‘can point you in the right direction,’ and ‘help when I have no idea what to do for a research paper”

While most students use it in the beginning of their research most do not end with it; they use more scholarly and authoritative resources as they progress through their research.  When students are in “deep research mode” they use library databases more frequently than Wikipedia. 

Ok so they use Wikipedia in the beginning of the search and thank God they don’t use it in the end, but isn’t starting with something such as Wikipedia with questionable accuracy a problem? For example, if I am going to cook I have got to have good ingredients to start with.  If they are going to do research they have to have reliable information to start with right?  According to Head and Eisenberg, this is less of a concern for students. 

“At the same time, we found credibility (another “C”) was less of a criterion for Wikipedia usage. Only 16 percent of the respondents in our survey reported using Wikipedia because it was more of a credible source of content than other Web sites.”

“Students in our sessions assumed they would need to substantiate what they first found in Wikipedia in their early stages of research with some additional fact checking.”

Additionally students who did question the information did extra fact checking elsewhere. 

So academic and medical librarians can breathe a little easier. Students hear us (and their instructors) loud and clear about using Wikipedia for research.  Yet we shouldn’t be totally blase about things either.  As Head and Eisenberg point out, there is an opportunity for us to help with “presearch,” narrowing down topics, figuring out search terms, obtaining background information. 

Heard and Eisenberg specifically focused on Wikipedia and what additional resources students used, their article did not discuss the ease at which students can access these “beyond Wikipedia” type resources.  That was not the intent of their paper, but I believe we as librarians need to continue to focus on making information as easily accessible to students.  If you remember earlier in this post, Google was the second most popular resource for finding information.  It is essential for our online resources to be IP validated, available off campus, and for us to try and get our library resources as full text-available as they can be.  The student is not going to know what the library does and doesn’t have full text online access to.  They are going to click on the journal in Google and if it comes up full text, it comes up.  If it doesn’t they will probably move on. 

This why some full text resources are so frustrating.  Journals like those from LWW don’t easily guide the normal student who uses Google to Ovid (which is how institutions get the full text), Google first guides them to the American Journal Of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation LWW site, not the Ovid site. (Krafty Disclosure: Google does list the Ovid site for the journal, but it is the 3 entry down and I have to believe that more “normal” users are going to click on the first or second entry which is the LWW site because it has journal information listed below the link and the second entry on Google says Current Issue: and is clearly a sibling page of the first entry.)  I don’t mean to specifically pick on Ovid/LWW, because this is a problem with other publishers as well.  For example if you search for Seminars In Colon & Rectal Surgery the first link is not to ScienceDirect (which is how most institutions access online Elsevier titles), the ScienceDirect link is the 6th entry on Google results.  If “normal” users aren’t clicking on the 3rd entry they sure as heck aren’t clicking on the 6th one. 

The problem is even worse for online books.  How on earth do students find online books?  At least with journals we have things like Medline which direct us to articles, there is no PubMed for books.  And many online catalogs are miserable to search and lack much of the details that users need (see my post Book Metadata Lagging Behind Journal Articles) so many students and librarians search Google Books and  So far the common entry points for online books are OPAC or the library’s website.  Yet students don’t always use those for finding books and they aren’t going to find an online book very easily using Google. 

Having online journals and books easily accessible/linkable to the institution through Google is a win for students, librarians and publishers.  For students it connects them to information.  For librarians, student are using our paid resources and we are connecting them to the information.  For publishers it drives up library usage statistics which is the main reason, besides price, as to whether we are going to renew the product. 

So while we all should take comfort knowing that students, “get it” when it comes to Wikipedia, we have a lot of opportunities in helping them with the “presearch” and connecting them with the resources once they are done with Wikipedia. 

One thought on “College Students Use of Wikipedia for Course Related Research”

  1. Congratulations. Your blog has been nominated for our Library Blog Awards. In fact, your blog was suggested more than once. We’re in the process of assembling information about all those nominated and will be sending a short questionnaire, including the categories of awards and the judges involved. Would you please send me your email address so that I can send you the questionnaire? If your email is on your blog, I couldn’t locate it.

    Thanks in advance,
    Peter W Tobey
    [email protected]

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