Reading "Wikipedia Comes of Age" in The Chronicle of Higher Education coincided with my turning in the grades for last semester's Advanced Legal Research course. The author, Casper Grathwohl, vice president and publisher of digital and reference content for Oxford University Press, points out that Wikipedia, which is ten years old this month, has created an "an enormous paradigm shift" in how people conduct research. Grathwohl used to dismiss Wikipedia in favor of more traditional, vetted reference works like the ones published by Oxford. Now, however, Grathwohl sees it as a "necessary layer in the Internet knowledge system, a layer that was not needed in the analog age." Contrary to what some professors think, students do not do research on Wikipedia; rather they do "pre-research," "to gain context on a topic, [and] to orient themselves ... " Thus, it functions "as an ideal bridge between the validated and unvalidated Web." Students are well aware that at most Wikipedia should be considered a filter and not an unimpeachable source, according to Grathwohl.
Wikipedia is ideally suited to serve as a link to traditional sources. Grathwohl points to a
project undertaken by the academic music community. In 2006 a large group of musicologists began discussing, on an academic listserv, their students' use of Wikipedia. One scholar issued a challenge: Wikipedia is where students are starting research ... so we need to improve its music entries. That call to arms resonated, and music scholars worked hard to imrove the quality of Wikipedia entries and make sure that bibliograpies and citations pointed to the most reliable resources. As a result, Oxford University Press experienced a tenfold increase in Wikipedia-referred traffic on its music-research site Grove Music Online.
Grathwohl believes that other parts of the scholarly community should "build stronger links ... to more advanced resources that have been created and maintained by the academy," with the ultimate goal of "integration into the formal research process." This can't happen soon enough to make me happy. I read two research guides over the weekend that cited Wikipedia entries. When I went to the entries, I found that their authors were relying on a superseded version of the United States Code (the 2000 edition) for their analysis of the current state of the law. A layperson would have no way of knowing that these analyses were useful for historical purposes only at this point and needed to be updated through another source.