For this week’s blog post I am stepping outside my usual realms of thinking about fiction texts by considering young adults’ use of a particular non-fiction text
which is loathed by many people, but seen as a primary source of information by
In contrast to the uncertainty which often surrounds the
definition and purpose of children’s literature, Cory Doctorow (who describes
himself as a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger)
confidently labels his latest book, Homeland,
as a Young Adult novel. With his implied readership defined, the novel includes
a bibliography which explains how to go about finding out information on “cool
stuff” such as pay phone hacking or using the Internet anonymously. While this
would be a perfect opportunity to consider the ethical implications of such an
instruction, I am going to save that for another time and wander in to the
realms of non-fiction.
As part of his instructions, Doctorow sends people to
Wikipedia in the following manner:
Wikipedia is an amazing place to do research, but you have
to know how to use it. Your teachers have probably told you that Wikipedia has
no place in your education, and I’m sorry to say that I think that this is a
lazy and dumb approach.
As a teacher, I know that students are often told not to use
Wikipedia; indeed, I tell my students to be wary of Wikipedia when I set them a
research homework. However, I also know that such exhortations are a mite hypocritical
as Wikipedia can be a useful means by which to confirm details or clarify the
answer to a question. But, as any savvy online researcher knows, never rely on
a single source (and having half an idea of the answer to the question before
asking it can often count as another source).
While I tell my students to check elsewhere when they insist
on using Wikipedia, Doctorow succinctly gives “two secrets to doing research on
Wikipedia”, the first of which I have – to some extent and not consistently, I will admit – mentioned
as part of my instructions to students:
1. Check the sources, not the article.
In an ideal world, all the factual assertions in a Wikipedia
article will have a citation to a source at the bottom of the article.
Wikipedia hasn’t achieved this ideal state (yet -- that’s what all those
 marks in the articles are about) but a surprising number of
the facts in a Wikipedia article will have a corresponding source at the
bottom. That’s where your research should take you when you’re reading an
article. Wikipedia is where your research should start, not where it should
This puts the onus of the research back on the student as
they need to follow up on sources. However, from conversations with them, I
know that if they see a referenced comment on Wikipedia they are content to
accept this as verified fact without bothering to take their research further.
In an age when students have nearly immediate access to such
a wealth of information, this is more of a ‘lazy and dumb approach’ than teachers
disallowing the use of Wikipedia. However, if following up sources is unlikely to
happen, Doctorow’s second secret – something I had not really thought about
before – is even less likely to happen:
2. Check the “Talk” link.
Every Wikipedia article has a “Talk” link that goes to a
page where everyone who cares about the article discusses its state. If someone
has a weird idea about a subject and finds a source somewhere on the net to
support it, they might just stick it into the Wikipedia article. But chances
are that this will spark a heated debate on the Talk page about whether the
source is “reputable” and whether its facts belong in an encyclopedia.
The problem with both of these ‘secrets’ is that they take
time. While the analogue days of searching in paper encyclopaedia for
information for a homework have been replaced with Google, it has made people
lazier (try Googling [google effect] or reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows if you need any convincing). The time taken to find and read a paper article is not inconsiderable,
but its content (usually) rewards the researcher. Relying on Google’s first
search result (which is very often Wikipedia) and taking the quickest path to a
completed homework with an undiscerningly quick copy and paste is –
unsurprisingly – the choice that most students will make.
It is inevitable that students will continue to use the
Internet to do their homework, so rather than trying to fight it by dismissing
Wikipedia (which means that students end up on risibly unreliable and
unreferenced sites lower down Google’s results) teachers could do much worse
than embracing Doctorow’s secrets and accepting Wikipedia as a valid source. If
teachers can say that they have trained their students how to explore the world
beyond Wikipedia, they are providing their students with skills that will be
useful beyond the classroom, whether it is researching Shakespeare, black holes
or lock picking.
It is a question of making technology work for you, rather
than being moulded by the technology, and as Doctorow concludes,
Armed with the original sources and the informed discussion
about whether those sources are good ones, you can use Wikipedia to get an
Teachers (and I include myself in this): stop being so hard
on Wikipedia and make sure you take the time to understand its power, and to model
its use and show students how to use it critically.
Students: stop being so lazy! You have access to an amazing
free education that no-one in the history of mankind has had before: learn how
to use it and don’t waste it.
Labels: cory doctorow, homeland, non-fiction, research, teaching, wikipedia