UW Today

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March 18, 2010

UW study finds Wikipedia first stop for many student researchers

Whether librarians or college faculty like it or not, Wikipedia is often an early resource for university students bent on research, according to a study produced at the University of Washington.

Michael Eisenberg, dean emeritus and professor at the Information School, and Alison Head, a research scientist there, conducted a survey of 2,300 students and interviewed 86 in focus groups. They found that 52 percent of students frequently used Wikipedia, the online, peer-produced encyclopedia, for background information, even if an instructor advised against it. Eight of 10 students said that to get their research underway, they often go to Wikipedia for background information. As one student said, “Wikipedia tells me what’s what.”

Architecture, engineering and science majors were more likely to use Wikipedia for course-related research than respondents in other majors. Google users were 10 times more likely to use Wikipedia.

Some faculty members and librarians have been leery of Wikipedia because of concerns about credibility and intellectual rigor, Head said.

“Nevertheless,” she said, “Wikipedia helps many college students because it offers coverage, currency, convenience and comprehensibility in a world where students don’t always expect credibility.”

Wikipedia drew fewer students than other background resources such as course readings (97 percent), Google (95 percent) and scholarly research databases such as ProQuest (93 percent).

Head and Eisenberg gathered data from sophomores, juniors and seniors at six college campuses between April and June of 2009. Freshmen at four-year colleges and students who had taken fewer than 12 units at community colleges were excluded, as they were more likely to discuss research strategies they had used in high school. The mean grade point average was 3.4, or B+.

Respondents were full-time students at Harvard University, Illinois State University, the University of Washington or students who had completed at least one semester at Chaffey Community College (Calif.), Shoreline Community College (Wash.) or Volunteer State Community College (Tenn.).

“We found that while college students use Wikipedia, they do so knowing its limitations – it has some credibility but not deep,” Head said. “Our findings also lead us to believe that support and solutions from multiple outlets, not just one tool, service or individual, may work the best.”

For Head and Eisenberg’s article regarding Wikipedia, go to http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2830/2476 .

Head and Eisenberg lead Project Information Literacy. A gift to the Information School from ProQuest and contributing funds from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation made the study possible.   


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For more information, contact Head at 707-939-6941 or ajhead1@uw.edu; Eisenberg at 206-616-1152 or mbe@uw.edu.