One sentence on Wikipedia: a microcosm of information literacy

What are the building blocks or “atoms” of Wikipedia? A Wikipedia article can have many elements, but at its core is it built of originally-worded statements of fact with a citation to a reliable, published source which is independent of the thing written about. When a contribution is removed, it has usually broken at least part of this definition.

Taking each part of this definition, and asking “why?”, is a way to structure a discussion about the reliability of information found online. This briefing gives some examples of “why” questions that can emerge (or be elicited) and some pointers for discussion that will illuminate each point.

This could be used with a very wide variety of learners, depending on how you frame the discussion and on your examples. The discussion could be directed to focus on critical thinking, understanding of digital resources, knowledge of a specific subject, or even abstract questions about the nature of knowledge.

The exercise is about comprehension, so need not involve directly editing Wikipedia. Learners can be assigned to research single sentences, relevant to the class topic, that they would like to add to Wikipedia, then discussion can weed out or improve those that are unsuitable. From the remainder, the class can vote on those facts that are most surprising or interesting. It can be more motivating if the discussion will actually change Wikipedia, i.e. if the “winning” statement or statements will be actually be added to a relevant article.

Wikipedia has a great many policies and guidelines – often long and detailed – which summarise consensus hammered out in lengthy discussions. However, there is often an “in a nutshell” summary at the top. That one-sentence summary is itself a starting point for discussion: how does it serve the goal of making a reliable encyclopaedia? What would Wikipedia be like without this principle? How would the learners apply this principle to a fact they are studying? Some of the more relevant summaries are included below.

1. Why a descriptive statement?

Each of these statements is regarded as true by some people:

  • Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa on 10 May 1994.

  • Nelson Mandela was a beacon of hope to the world.

  • Nelson Mandela was a terrorist.

  • Nelson Mandela was described as a terrorist by some of his opponents.

Where would you expect these statements to have been published? Which of them belong in an encyclopaedia?

Wikipedia policy in a nutshell: “Articles must not take sides, but should explain the sides, fairly and without bias. This applies to both what you say and how you say it.” From Wikipedia:Neutral point of view.

A Wikipedia guideline in a nutshell: “The tone […] should always remain formal, impersonal, and dispassionate.” From Wikipedia:Writing Better Articles.

2. Why original wording? If someone else already got it right, why not copy their words exactly?

This is a chance to talk about copyright law and the idea that text can be owned.

Wikipedia policy in a nutshell: “Do not make the work of others look like your own. Give credit where it is due.” from Wikipedia:Plagiarism.

3. Why do I need sources? Isn’t it more important to make sure that what you write is true?

This is a chance to distinguish “investigating something so you know it to be true” from “investigating something so that you could demonstrate it to others”.

Wikipedia policy in a nutshell: “Readers must be able to check that Wikipedia articles are not just made up.” from Wikipedia:Verifiability.

4. Why are only some sources acceptable? Why not just use the links that were top of my Google search?

  • I want people to think I’m a billionaire. How hard would it be to get the statement, “{My name} is a billionaire,”

  • a) online somewhere, e.g. a YouTube video?

    b) in a newspaper article?

    c) in a book on sale in a high street bookshop?

  • Does Google check the accuracy of the sites it gives you in search results? How many fact-checkers work for Google?

  • Does Google have all the knowledge ever written? What is it missing?

  • A newspaper has different sections: reporting, opinion pieces, adverts, advertorial features. Are they all equally suitable?

Wikipedia policy in a nutshell: “A third-party source is reliable if it has standards of peer review and fact-checking. In general, the more people engaged in checking facts, the more reliable the publication.” from Wikipedia:Third-party sources.

5. Why do sources have to be independent? Isn’t it better to get information directly from the people involved?

  • Why do organisations or people have web sites? Why do celebrities write autobiographies?

  • Some popular clothing companies have been accused of running “sweatshops” that exploit children: could you learn about these sweatshops from the company’s web sites?

  • Are independent sources necessarily trustworthy? Lots of people create web sites about celebrities, either for or against: what are their motivations for doing that?

Wikipedia policy in a nutshell: “A third-party source is independent and unaffiliated with the subject, thus excluding first-party sources such as self-published material by the subject, autobiographies, and promotional materials,” from Wikipedia:Third-party sources.

6. Why do I need a citation? Why not just give the web address where I found the information?

  • Will a web address always work? (Ever had the experience of a link breaking?)

  • Will a web address always give you the same information? (Wikipedia itself is a counter-example to this.)

  • If the link is broken but you have the author, title, publication, and date, how can you use these to track down the source? (This is a chance to talk about more informed use of web search engines, or to talk about other research resources.)

Wikipedia policy in a nutshell: “By citing sources for Wikipedia content, you enable users to verify that the information given is supported by reliable sources, thus improving the credibility of Wikipedia while showing that the content is not original research. You also help users find additional information on the subject; and you avoid plagiarising the source of your words or ideas by giving attribution.” from Wikipedia:Citing sources.

Deeper questions

This “atomic” approach, considering a single cited sentence, helps a class to focus in on some basic issues, but misses out a lot of complexity. The complexity could be brought back in to kick off deeper discussions. Again, this could be done in terms of a hypothetical change to Wikipedia, or motivated by an actual change to Wikipedia that will be collectively decided by the class.

Not all sources are equally reliable. It is possible to find published sources that say that psychic powers are real, that global warming isn’t happening, or that shark cartilage cures cancer. Expert opinion is overwhelmingly against each of these conclusions. So whether a claim counts as knowledge has to be answered in the context not just of one source but the totality of sources.

Even sources with a reputation for fact-checking, including news media and academic journals, sometimes retract statements that are found to be mistaken or fraudulent. There are some high-profile cases such as The Lancet’s retraction of Andrew Wakefield’s paper about MMR or BBC Newsnight’s retraction of allegations about Lord McAlpine.

  • How can an encyclopaedia protect itself from publishing things it will later have to retract?

  • Should Wikipedia publish the very latest research, or research that has been checked by many different experts (which takes time)? How does this trade-off work in different subject areas?

Wikipedia policy in a nutshell: “An idea that is not broadly supported by scholarship in its field must not be given undue weight in an article about a mainstream idea.” from Wikipedia:Fringe theories.

Knowledge emerges from a balance of multiple sources, not a single source. A balance of multiple sources has to consider weight and reliability, rather than deciding what’s true with a popularity contest.

  • If an article is cited to reliable sources, and summarises them accurately and fairly, does that prove is it free of bias?

  • How biased could you make an article if you could choose sources to exclude?

  • Can we tell looking at an article if all significant viewpoints are represented?

  • How would we go about finding all significant viewpoints?

Wikipedia policy in a nutshell: “An article should not give undue weight to any aspects of the subject but should strive to treat each aspect with a weight appropriate to its significance to the subject.” from Wikipedia:Neutral point of view.

Tone and synthesis can change meaning: It is possible to take statements – each of which is true and reliably sourced – and juxtapose them to imply something novel and unwarranted. “John F. Kennedy gave a speech challenging the military-industrial complex: within a year he was assassinated.”

Wikipedia policy in a nutshell: “Do not combine material from multiple sources to reach or imply a conclusion not explicitly stated by any of the sources.” from Wikipedia:No original research

Truth versus verifiability: Is saying a statement belongs in Wikipedia the same as saying it is true? If everybody agrees with a statement, does that suggest that it is knowledge? What kind of knowledge?

Wikipedia guidance in a nutshell: “Editors may not add or delete content solely because they believe it is true.” from Wikipedia:Verifiability, not truth. Note that this is an essay reflecting some users’ views, not official policy.

A rewriting exercise

The Wikimedia UK training materials include a deliberately unencyclopaedic (and fictional) paragraph in which each sentence has at least one major stylistic flaw from a Wikipedia perspective. This and similar text could be used to teach about evaluation, editorialising, promotion and other kinds of non-neutrality. Role-playing as Wikipedia editors, learners could answer 1) how they would rewrite the text to be balanced, factual and non-promotional, 2) what feedback they would give to the user submitting the text to Wikipedia.

The central idea of this post was suggested by Peter Gallert, a teacher and Wikipedian based in Namibia. Thanks to Dr Ruth Page of the University of Leicester and Simon Knight of the Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute for comments on an early draft of this post.

I will be running a workshop on “Wikipedia as a platform for learners as producers” at the Jisc Digital Festival in March.

2 thoughts on “One sentence on Wikipedia: a microcosm of information literacy

  1. ds

    Hi Martin,

    Great post. As a matter of fact, we’re just about to run another iteration of the third year course here in Scarborough where we deploy some wiki goodness; I’m going to point the students at this as a recommended link for discussing source quality.

  2. Pingback: Let’s get serious about Wikipedia | Wikimedia UK Blog

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