The more popular Wikipedia seemed to get, the more Monica Freudenreich was told by her professors at the University of British Columbia to stay as far away from it as possible.
The ever-growing online encyclopedia’s strategy of letting anyone with an Internet connection edit and revise articles, the argument usually goes, makes it unreliable, nonacademic — and off limits for student researchers.
But then Freudenreich, 21, was given a surprising assignment by her Latin American literature professor: instead of writing term papers, the class would be writing Wikipedia articles.
“I guess I was more intrigued by it,” said Freudenreich, who is entering her fourth year in international relations and Latin American studies.
“I’ve heard in the past that you could write whatever you wanted on Wikipedia, but I didn’t really have any idea how it works. I was a little nervous about it.”
The semester-long assignment, which wrapped up in the spring, saw the class split into a dozen groups, with each group assigned an article about a particular Latin American author or book.
Some of the topics already had corresponding Wikipedia entries, while others were created from scratch.
The goal was to have each entry labelled a “featured article” on the site, a designation reserved for the most rigorously researched pages that follow Wikipedia’s standards for unbiased, well-cited and well-written material.
Creating a featured article earned groups a mark of A+.
Freudenreich’s group was assigned an article for the Spanish novel “El Señor Presidente.”
It began with a single sentence when the page was created in January: “‘El Señor Presidente’ is the title of a novel by Miguel Angel Asturias.”
Four months later, it had been edited and revised more than 1,000 times. It had grown to 8,000 words with more than 100 citations — no easy task for a topic that was relatively obscure to begin with.
“It just required a lot of research. I think I talked to the research librarian about four times,” says Freudenreich.
“With it being a Latin American studies class, a lot of the content on these novels is in Spanish.”
Freudenreich’s entry was the first to become a featured article, which placed her in one of three groups to walk away with top marks.
Her professor, Jon Beasley-Murray, said the experiment was designed to force the class to explore the inner workings of Wikipedia, which has become ubiquitous on the Internet and has crept into students’ work.
“They’ve all used Wikipedia, but none of them had ever added anything, even though that’s partly the point of Wikipedia,” he says.
“Part of my thinking was that to really understand this site — one of the most popular sites there is — the best way to see how it works is to actually take part.”
Beasley-Murray, who plans to repeat the assignment when he teaches the class again in the fall, said the students learned the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia articles — and, more importantly, how to sort the good from the bad.
He notes that of Wikipedia’s 2.4 million articles, only 2,000 are so-called featured articles — less than 0.1 per cent.
A group of experienced Wikipedia editors took an interest in the project early on and began helping the students with their articles.
These anonymous editors would demand better citations and critique the writing. If the pages were vandalized or defaced, other Wikipedia editors would help undo the changes.
Beasley-Murray still plans to tell students not to cite Wikipedia in work they hand in, but he said the site can provide valuable starting points if articles are properly cited.
Freudenreich says that’s exactly how she now sees Wikipedia — not a reliable source of information in itself, but rather a tool that can point her in the right direction.
“Maybe you don’t quote right off Wikipedia, but it’s a great … list of academic sources that you can go and see. It cuts down the search process,” she said.
“For featured articles or good articles, everything that’s been reviewed by other people out there, they set the bar really high — higher than a professor would, I’d say.”
- The Canadian Press