Surprise! Most students use Wikipedia at some point during their research on a paper or project, and they usually do so early on in the process. Online peer-reviewed journal First Monday recently published the findings of its research on student Wikipedia use and said that the service often serves as a starting point for the students who use it, allowing them to gather information for further investigation elsewhere. This is despite the fact that their professors still frown on Wikipedia use—but it seems that students believe what their profs don't know won't hurt them.
The research was done as part of Project Information Literacy (PIL) out of the University of Washington. Researchers included data from focus groups across seven university campuses in the US as well as survey responses from six campuses. What they found was that a full three-quarters of students use Wikipedia at least occasionally, with 30 percent of the group saying they always use it when performing their own research. Thirteen percent used it rarely and only nine percent said they never used Wikipedia (mysteriously, three percent said they didn't know whether they used it or not).
The reasons for Wikipedia use aren't very much of a reach. Eighty-two percent of the students surveyed said they went to Wikipedia for background information or a summary about a topic, often using it as a way to get started on further research (76 percent). "Students reported they could not begin their research process until they had an idea of what they were going to write about. They did not think that they could approach an instructor about an assignment, until they knew more about their topic," reads the report. "Wikipedia was a convenient go-to source under these circumstances. The source delivered results students could act upon, allowing them to get unstuck and move forward."
It's clear, however, that students are aware of the limitations of Wikipedia. Only 17 percent said they used Wikipedia because they felt it was more credible than other websites, and that's not even including more academic research materials. A very heavy majority (97 percent) still referred to course readings to get background on a topic, as well as scholarly research databases (93 percent).
Additionally, students are aware of the stigma against using Wikipedia—so much so that they avoid telling their professors that it was included in the research process at all. "Sure, I use Wikipedia just to get a taste, even though my professors say not to," one focus group participant said. Indeed, the PIL report says that most students simply avoid citing Wikipedia after having used it to get off on the right foot.
Wikipedia's role in higher education has always been a hotly debated topic, with a large majority of instructors expressing a very negative view of the service. This is despite the fact that some experts have rated Wikipedia's overall accuracy higher than regular Joes on the street, following a highly publicized study that rated Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica around the same level of accuracy. As long as students are aware of the limitations—and it certainly seems that they are—the PIL study seems to indicate that their usage behaviors are pretty safe.
Source: ars technica