Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Wikipedia student assignments - what could go wrong

A reader has complained by email that there is too much medieval philosophy and not enough about Wikipedia. Well mate, I'm sure there are readers of this blog who appreciate the medieval philosophy and roll their eyes at the Wikipedia stuff. But, just to oblige, and I admit I have been a bit quiet on Wikipedia for the last few weeks:-

There is a fascinating study here of what happens when you let students loose on Wikipedia.  A sample of students were invited to make edits to psychology articles, with depressing results. The supervising editors found that students found it difficult to write proper citations, despite being trained for academic writing. They did not understand the subject well enough to write for the average reader of an encyclopedia, and even made mistakes that even a non-expert could spot. Because of their reliance on a single source, it was difficult for them to paraphrase the source without making mistakes or writing nonsense, and so frequently, the text was incomprehensible.

I'll let you read the article and decide for yourselves.  But there were a few points hidden in there.  The first was how bad the students were at writing in a way that generalists could easily understand. Indeed, it was the Wikipedian mentors, who were not experts in the subject, who were much better at this.  I'm not surprised. Writing for a middlebrow audience is difficult, and 'accessibility' is one area where I would fault the otherwise excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (As well as Wikipedia of course, which fails to be accessible in many interesting ways).

The second was that, as the mentors observe at the end of their paper, the reason that the students' poor edits were reverted was because of the care and attention paid to the articles. They say that the fact that the plagiarism and poor content was reverted or fixed "is almost wholly down to the extraordinary efforts of three Wikipedians. ", and mention that even on popular subjects, the actual number of committed Wikipedians able to police edits is generally over-estimated. This suggests that a lot of poor edits are getting through without being reverted, which doesn't surprise me either.

Tomorrow: Thomas Aquinas.


William M. Connolley said...

You might enjoy "ScotyBerg == Mantammoreland"!?! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_talk:ScottyBerg#Blocked

Let me know if you have any ideas.

William M. Connolley said...

...and having read the article now, thanks for pointing it out. I'm surprised by how bad the students were. Or possibly (given the low take-up rate) maybe only the bad ones bothered to edit.

Edward Ockham said...

>>You might enjoy "ScotyBerg == Mantammoreland

Being actively discussed on Wikipedia Review at this very moment. That whole case I've tended to put in the 'too difficult' box, together with Israeli-Palestine dispute etc, and all other cases where it is difficult to establish which side is right or wrong.