Critical sources

September 4, 2008

Martin Cohen should stop worrying about the use of Wikipedia ("Encyclopaedia Idiotica", 28 August) and start thinking about the skills used to evaluate its contents. In considering any material claiming to be authoritative, the key skills required are to evaluate what is being claimed by looking closely at the sources cited and to consider the plausibility of the arguments offered.

If these requirements appear to be satisfied, then further support from other sources should be considered. Equally, counter-arguments and opinions need to be weighed before coming to any conclusion.

With these factors in mind, I have never understood the objections to using Wikipedia as one potential resource among others. While more than 90 per cent of Wikipedia entries may be unreliable, I am not convinced that they are much less reliable than many pieces of research published in "respectable" academic journals.

I often see work by students who treat everything published in refereed papers as being necessarily true, and that concerns me just as much as those who believe every word in Wikipedia. Surely the point is to encourage students and staff to treat all published material in the same critical and rigorous manner if they wish to be considered as serious scholars?

Wikipedians may be an "unappealing bunch" of "computer fanatics, generally male, usually teenagers", but I can't resist contrasting this with the journal fanatics, generally male, usually middle-aged, who are responsible for most academic output.

Sam Salt, Head of computing programmes University of Derby.

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