When Wikipedia first came out, I had the typical academic response to Wikipedia – don’t use it, especially don’t cite it. I mean, how can something legitimate come out of a source that can be written by anyone with an internet connection, the same internet where no one knows that you are a dog and that has produced such phenomena as Rebecca Black, Michael Jackson-dancing inmates, and has given new life to Rick Astley.
Well, I was wrong. There is a lot of good stuff on Wikipedia, especially when someone is beginning to explore a topic that they either do not know anything about or they know a lot about but don’t remember exactly the exact equation or who said what. As an anthropologist, it’s second-nature to take seriously the wisdom of crowds (large or small); it’s surprising then that we would react like our academic peers in an unwillingness to acknowledge a potentially “unauthorized” source. In the end, like the knowledge that we produce through the peer-review process, Wikipedia overall is a pretty useful (and accurate) medium that reflects the conflicts, consensus, and ignorance that is part of what it means to be humans embedded in a particular social system.
I will still tell my students not to cite Wikipedia, and to rely on professional, peer-reviewed sources for their papers (where you can positively identify the source of the idea). But I will also not hesitate to tell them to check Wikipedia or to begin their exploration of a particular topic on Wikipedia. In the end, this reminds me that what we academics produce is as socially-conditioned as anything else (as science and technology studies constantly remind us), and that the peer-review process is not infallible. I’m reminded that Bernie Madoff was also peer-reviewed, and in the end was further judged by his peers in a court of law. And having Wikipedia around does not in any way diminish the importance of Ms. Frizzle to her students.