Professor Gets Tenure With The Help Of His Wikipedia Contributions

from the good-for-him dept

It’s no secret that many in academia do not like Wikipedia. It’s regularly frowned upon, and there’s often talk about barring the use of Wikipedia. Of course, much of this is based on a misunderstanding of what Wikipedia is and how it works. That’s not to say Wikipedia is perfect or trustworthy. But it is a valuable source, when used in conjunction with other sources. And it’s nice to see at least some recognizing that. A report on the Wikipedia blog highlights how professor Michel Aaij was able to use his vast Wikipedia contributions as part of his tenure application, and it worked. Obviously, he had done other stuff as well, but the Wikipedia efforts clearly helped (and it didn’t hurt that he’d previously turned some of his colleagues around on the whole concept of Wikipedia).

Michel added the articles he?d achieved Good Article status for under the research section, including two that were going through the review process, and added articles that had appeared in the Did You Know section of the main page on medieval and literary topics, as well as topics about Montgomery, Alabama, the town in which his university is located.

“It took a bit of shuffling and organizing, but in the end I had a meaty section on Wikipedia and my work there under research, based on the claim that Did You Knows, Good Articles, and Featured Articles are all scrutinized more or less during a peer-review process,” Michel says. “I had supporting materials in the forms of articles I had written in both research and service. In the end, I suggested (based on the advice of three of my colleagues) that Wikipedia articles were no worse than for instance those published by the GALE databases?it is worthwhile adding that we had just hired a new chair partly on the basis of such bibliographic articles.”

Michel’s tenured colleagues approved him unanimously, and the campus-wide committee awarded him tenure last month, marking perhaps the first time that a professor has received tenure in part due to his Wikipedia contributions.

It certainly would be nice if the overly broad anti-Wikipedia bias in academia was starting to fade… Of course, it’s important to point out that it wasn’t just Wikipedia edits on his application, but either way, it appears that his colleagues are gaining increasing respect for work done on Wikipedia in addition to traditional journals.

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Comments on “Professor Gets Tenure With The Help Of His Wikipedia Contributions”

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30 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Wikipedia is more for people who are looking things up out of curiosity. This is true of most generalized encyclopedias as well. They give you a good starting point along with good starting point references, but if you want highly specialized, accurate, and detailed information within a narrow field, you would consult text that specializes in that field. It’s kinda like the difference between going to a general doctor vs going to a specialist.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I agree, you have to start somewhere, but I can also see why professors wouldn’t like students referencing wikipedia or any generalized encyclopedia (at least not alone) when dealing with in depth material. Wikipedia is more for the hobbyist who is casually interested in a subject matter at the moment, not for a student who is aggressively investigating it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Wikipedia is good for things like math, but unless you’re like at the Ph.D. level when it comes to math (and even a Ph.D. in mathematics is still considerably behind the level of math that is currently known, they’re maybe caught up to like 1970 or so. I guess it also depends on which school the Ph.D came from to some extent too) then math is so well understood, uncontroversial, and static (it’s not like tomorrow new research will pop up suddenly showing that 2+2 is really equal to five. However, if you’re studying laws, laws always change and become obsolete, they differ from location to location, interpretations differ from judge to judge and source to source; New discoveries in biology overturn older theories) that average students will probably not be writing cutting edge essays during a course of a normal assignment.

What kills me about math is that they keep on making new editions to these books (ie: calculus and even algebra) to influence students to keep buying new books instead of using the one from last semester (or using a friends book who took the class last semester). and each book is virtually identical, the chapters merely get flipped around a bit and the math problems are maybe moved around and changed a bit. What groundbreaking new discovery could have possibly compelled the author to release a new edition to keep up to date with all the new research in elementary algebra and calculus?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Sure, improving Wikipedia by encouraging more professors to contribute is a good idea. But at this point it’s still generalized and even the link you provided is hardly cutting edge or controversial but stuff that’s been around and well documented for a long time. In other words, its outdated.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

(or, rather, it’s hardly specialized, at least not by today’s standards when compared to what gets published in the more specialized publications of today. and what is considered specialized today will be considered general information twenty years from now after its had time to become more accepted and understood by more people at a younger age but by then we will have even more highly specialized information in a broader array of fields being published in even more specialized publications).

Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:

Cruft on Wikipedia

There is plenty of cruft and crap on Wikipedia, but one could say that about the Encyclopedia Britannica as well! What is true, is that there is a LOT of well written, well thought out, and topical stuff there. My BS detector is a lot less active when reading articles on the Wikipedia than a lot of more “established” venues. As said, never take one source as gospel. Look around, and form your own conclusions!

Bikerelc (profile) says:

I call bull on the bias

As a fairly recent graduate, I never met one professor that was truly biased against wikipedia. Sure you couldn’t use wikipedia as a source, but the same professors would tell you to start there and work your way back through the references that wikipedia quoted, and then any references that were quoted in whatever you found there. To be fair that is the point of wikipedia. It gives a quick overview, but it links you to the source of the information which is likely where you will find what you really need if you are doing any sort of in depth research.

Anonymous Coward says:

Publishers will be out in force trying to head this off. Typically they get the professors to add info for their text book, republish the text book with changing page numbers and shuffling text around, and look for the bucks to come flowing in as students are hit with high priced text books.

Should this come to be norm, the day of the rip off publisher is indeed threatened.

Recognition for work on Wikipedia sounds like a start in that direction. It takes more than one contributing to make it acceptable.

I would suspect that the book publishers will be raising some serious cane seeing the possibility of their money grab doing a disappearing act.

This sort of sounds like another industry fixing to be threatened by the internet.

Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Publishers will be out in force trying to head this off. Typically they get the professors to add info for their text book, republish the text book with changing page numbers and shuffling text around, and look for the bucks to come flowing in as students are hit with high priced text books.

Which is why textbooks are such a ripoff. All you have to do is push the text one page off and your instructor’s lesson plan won’t match what you’re studying.

And the used book buyback is equally as insulting. That $185 book you never opened because the information was also available online? Here’s $10. I’d say ‘don’t spend it all in one place’ but you are registered for the next semester…

Anonymous Coward says:

Journals

I don’t understand why people think journals are comparable to wikipedia. They are effectively two separate types of knowledge.

Wikipedia: great fundamental information like basic equations, derivations, overviews of subjects, tables of values, gas constants, chemical formulas, basically a big, trimmed down textbook.

Journals: great for current research and writing papers on cutting edge stuff. Each paper is basically an in-depth description of the individual experiment and results. But if you want anything useful in understanding a subject, you’re better off with wikipedia. The only reason you use journals is to cherry-pick the few that are relevant to your subject, but each is so incredibly specialized (and expensive to get ahold of) that you have to be well-versed in the field for the journals to be helpful.

I hope this gives a quick idea of how journals and wikipedia are like apples and oranges.

Atkray (profile) says:

I’ve had both kinds of professors.
Neither would accept a citation from Wikipedia.

The ones that seemed most concerned with learning would tell you to look there and branch out and to use your critical thinking skills.

The ones that ran the classroom like their own little kingdom would spend 10 minutes the first class explaining how Wikipedia was comparable to a comic book only not as accurate.

The fear shown by the second group is not unlike the industries that are frequently discussed here on techdirt.

scott mc laughlin (profile) says:

citation

I don’t let my students cite wikipedia but I tell them to start there and I frequently use it in class and let them use it in class (I’m a part-time lecturer in a UK university). The reason I don’t let them cite from it is not because it’s wrong (I’ve only very rarely come across this problem), but because its author-bias is obfuscated, you don’t know who’s written what. Academic knowledge is highly dependent on knowing the author bias and being able to show a trail of authors who are ‘respectable’.
I tell students to use wikipedia but find and cite the original sources as wikipedia is just an information hub, not research in itself (note the “original research” warnings on many wikipedia pages)

Kevin says:

Wikipedia & Academia

Actually, when I was in grad school, I found that *most* profs were anti-Wikipedia, but for good reason.

The articles on philosophy and mathematics were, at least at that time, frequently riddled with errors and omissions which were subtle enough to make them seem accurate to someone learning, but obviously dangerously unreliable to an actual expert. Therein, I think, lies the true danger of using Wikipedia even as a starting point for research. I wouldn’t want my students to start off by forming their first general impressions on something misleading!

Wikipedia has many poorly thought out content moderation policies that, in my opinion, give it a strong anti-intellectual bias. The No Original Research and Conflict of Interest policies can be and have been used by subversive editors to prevent the most relevant experts from contributing. Additionally, Wikipedians overzealously campaigning for NPOV often fall into the same trap as journalists with Jay Rosen’s “view from nowhere.”

Wikipedia also suffers a great deal from systemic bias. This is more of a jab than a legitimate criticism from most, but I think it’s especially problematic for their huge, wacky lists. Take the list of HTTP status codes: would you rather have Wikipedia’s ultra-comprehensive list including every use they could come up with whether canonical or not, or a simpler canonical version available numerous other places on the web? The presentation of obscure information alongside canonical information is not what I want in my early research.

I think Wikipedia is a great pop culture reference, and I use it every day for that purpose, but I long ago gave up on the idea that it is or will ever be academically viable. This, to me, is the saddest part. Wikipedia could avoid many of its issues simply by recognizing itself for what it is. Instead, it seems to have virtual delusions of grandeur.

blaktron (profile) says:

Re: Wikipedia & Academia

So wait. First there are omissions that are subtle, yet subversive to learning. Second, there is too much information that puts obscure information alongside relevant?

Listen, when you list contradictory ideas and use them both as criticism for something it becomes apparent that you are simply digging for reasons to criticize. It undermines your point. The fact is that there is less ‘systematic bias’ in Wikipedia than other SIMILAR general knowledge sources. Is it as comprehensive as an article of knowledge dedicated to a single topic? No. But I bet you can find that article of knowledge linked to on wiki…

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Wikipedia

Great article, and good commenting.
This brings to mind the “town and gown” brawls in the Middle Ages. When we get an elitist attitude about education, both sides get silly in their responses.
Education is a tool. If I want a carpenter, and I find someone who doesn’t know how to use a hammer, to me, that is not a carpenter.
So, if something requires an education, we need someone with that tool in their “toolbox”. To think the education makes someone a “better” person is to ignore that the “greatest and best” (to Christians, anyway) was completely uneducated, and I suspect that applies to all religions and communities.

anizaryasmeen (user link) says:

nice article, good for him!
I remember how my professor always disagree whenever I use Wikipedia for the source when I was doing my bachelor thesis, yet personally I didn’t think that it was as bad as what he might perceive, what with the quality control and all.
I also agree with one of the comment above about how Wikipedia is good for hobbyst. I’m a record collector, and Wikipedia is good source for artists discography information, sometimes even better than discogs.

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