Last week, as many if not most of you know, a number of news outlets reported that Irish student Shane Fitzgerald had made up quotations, attributing them to French composer Maurice Jarre upon his death and publishing them on Wikipedia. While the Wikipedia community removed the false quotations rather quickly, given the lack of grounded citation, several prominent newspapers included at least one of these creative quotations in obituaries of Jarre.
While I found the story interesting, in the large scheme of things, and given the innocuousness of the attributed quotation, the story should have been but a small blip on my radar. In my larger scholarly and pedagogical community, however, this was rather monumental news for many people to the degree that Wikipedia has become something of a boogeyman in the rather predictable conversations about the laziness of “today’s generation of students.” In effect, Wikipedia has become the whipping post that teachers turn to each time they begin another round of cursing the laziness of students.
Indeed, this is true to such a degree that one often finds syllabi with pseudolegalize, warning students away from utilizing Wikipedia as a source. Instead, the syllabi reminds the student, research must carefully be tied to properly vetted sources (e.g., peer reviewed journals, or, in the case of contemporary events, national newspapers). University libraries run seminar after seminar, explaining to first year students that they must learn to differentiate between legitimate and nonlegitimate sources for their research. In short, the most positive thing one will ever found said of Wikipedia is that it might, on occasion, given other sources, be used for deep background information.
Hence, the affaire de Jarre was the cause of some level of minihysteria in informal conversation and online discussions amongst teachers who yet again pointed to Wikipedia as the example par excellence of the downfall of standards in student research and writing. In conversation after conversation, numerous teachers noted that this was surely the sign—if we needed another—that students should never turn to Wikipedia as a legitimate source in their research. If only “we” could get students to do real research, skipping Wikipedia, we would be on solid grounds.
The Wikipedia community, I want to stress, reportedly corrected Fitzgerald’s invented quotes quickly after he published them. Instead, it was the newspaper reporters who wrote the stories, and the “legitimate research source” newspapers that printed the stories, who were slow to correct the story (when they did) and who were even slower to apologize, who should be seen as at fault here. Think about it: if a student were writing a paper about Jarre on the day after Fitzgerald made up his quotation, the student would NOT have found it on Wikipedia but would have found it in archived newspapers and in online versions of the papers for a fairly long time period (potentially forever, the story goes, if Fitzgerald hadn’t gone public with his experiment). In short, Wikipedia would have proven to be the better, more accurate, source.
While the ultimate story should have taught the lesson that teachers should begin warning students that we live in a very different world of research, that new strategies of verification and attribution need to be designed, all we heard was the same stale moral—Wikipedia is bad.
Ultimately, this affair should bring up at least two questions. The first, and a large one that I’m not prepared to answer, is how we indeed will rethink standards of research within the academy (and elsewhere). If we aren’t having students conduct hardcore archival work, we are going to need to find more interesting and compelling ways to discuss research, and discuss how to judge the accuracy of “facts.” Consider this: if the Wikipedia community had not removed the quotation in the first two days, Fitzgerald would have been able to ground the quotation by citing newspapers who were using his Wikipedia entry without citing it. We do have a problem here, and it’s one we need to think hard about. But it’s not Wikipedia’s fault; it has more to do with the general medium in which we all now swim.
This brings me to what I think is the most interesting question. The real bugaboo here is not the problem of research but the fact that so many teachers could read the initial story and place all of the blame on Wikipedia, ignoring the problematic behavior of the newspaper reporters and publishers. Why, I think we must ask, are teachers holding such a strong interpretive frame that they miss the point?
To be fair, it’s partially understandable to the degree that, for years, we were taught to trust grounded research from academics, and for years, we were told not to trust non-peer reviewed research; ultimately, the interpretive frame we use to read the Fitzgerald story is one we refuse to let go, one we hold an interest in; it legitimizes our own research, our own writing.
Rather than a reiteration of that paradigm, the case refuted it. And no one noticed. So, I wonder, what is it going to take to teach the teachers themselves that the rules are changing, that wikis are not the immediate and obvious problem, that we cannot rely on our own assumptions. If the rules are changing, and our assumptions are not, what are we teaching?