Profs question students’ Wikipedia dependency

If you type the word “emysphilia” into Google, the first link listed is an article on the Web site Answers.com defining the term as “a rare sexual fetish in which the practitioner experiences sexual arousal from visual and tactile stimuli relating to turtles and tortoises.” The fetish, according to the article, was discovered by Dr. Daniel Schechner in 1959, who observed it in a man known as “Mr. Gor.” According to the article — which references Schechner’s two books on the subject — the American Psychiatric Association does not recognize the fetish as a legitimate disorder.

All this would make for a rather curious bit of knowledge except for one thing: Emysphilia does not exist.

“[Emysphilia] is totally absolutely fake,” said John Behan ’10, who author ed the original Wikipedia article on the condition.

And Dr. Daniel Schechner? That’s taken from the name of Behan’s suitemate, Dan Schechner ’10. The name of “Mr. Gor,” the supposed original turtle fetishist, is a reference to Behan’s other suitemate, Ankit Gor ’10. Behan invented the term “emysphilia” based on the Greek word for turtle.

Although Wikipedia — a free, user-compiled, open-edited, online encyclopedia — removed the article soon after Behan put it up, the term is still featured on several user-based Web sites, such as Answers.com, which refer to Wikipedia as the original publisher of the article.

While Behan and his suitemates get laughs from the gullibility of the people who believe his articles, Wikipedia’s editorial system — or lack thereof — that made his joke possible has professors and college departments around the country concerned that students are citing incorrect information in their academic work. A few Yale professors are adamantly opposed to the use of Wikipedia for academic work, though many of their peers said it has not caused problems at Yale and students said they continue to rely on the encyclopedia for help with their schoolwork.

History professor Michael Gasper explicitly outlawed the use of Wikipedia as a source for papers in his class “A History of the Palestine/Israel Question”

“This paper will be based on your own research,” Gasper wrote in the syllabus for the class. “Please do not even think of using Wikipedia or other such websites as sources for your paper. Wait! You THOUGHT about it!!”

Some Yale professors said they do not believe Wikipedia should ever be cited by students as a source in any academic paper.

“For general orientation, as an introduction to a topic — fine, but it’s not an authority,” History Department chair Paul Freedman said. “It’s not something that you can cite and then have the satisfaction that you’ve … gotten the last word on the subject.”

Other Yale faculty said while they had not heard of specific problems arising from inappropriate Wikipedia use, they were generally wary of its scholarly applications. Calhoun College Dean Stephen Lassonde said he discourages students from using the encyclopedia in any academic manner.

When searching for course materials to assign for a class he is currently teaching, Lassonde said, he found a relevant Wikipedia article helpful in finding sources that traditional databases had skipped. But Lassonde became skeptical when he found the author of the entry’s most important source incorrectly cited as “James Boswell” instead of “John Boswell.”

“As a teacher … I don’t consider Wikipedia a legitimate source,” Lassonde said in an e-mail.

The rigorous editing standards for hard copy sources prevent many of the errors to which Wikipedia pages are prone, Lassonde said.

“Having said that, I am also alert to the fact that many undergraduates swear by Wikipedia and feel as though they can now know anything in an instant,” Lassonde said. “For me, the jury’s out and will be for a long time.”

While the Yale administration has not issued any sort of encompassing bans or regulations concerning the use of Wikipedia, other colleges and universities have taken a stand. The history department at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., passed a resolution in January to ban the citation of Wikipedia as a source in student papers, after students cited incorrect facts attributed to entries on the Web site.

Don Wyatt, chair of the history department at Middlebury, said his department decided on the policy when several professors became aware of frequently-cited but inaccurate facts used by several students that were ultimately traced to Wikipedia articles.

But despite this backlash against the popular site, Wikipedia officials maintain that the encyclopedia can be a useful and accurate source as long as it is used correctly.

Mathias Schindler, a member of the Communications Committee of the Wikimedia Foundation, the umbrella organization of Wikipedia, said while Middlebury’s history department’s policy is reasonable, students can in fact augment their research by using Wikipedia.

“It’s usually not advisable, particularly at the university level, to cite an encyclopedia,” Schindler said in an e-mail. “This does not mean Wikipedia is not a useful resource. Wikipedia is a great place to start your research, but students should not use it as the final word on any subject matter.”

Wyatt said many of the inaccuracies his department found arose when students used Wikipedia as their sole research source.

“Had the students in question actually taken the time to consult other sources, such as even their assigned reading for the course, they would have found the mistaken information they had instead extracted from Wikipedia directly contradicted,” Wyatt said.

Schindler said efforts — such as Peer Review, which exposes articles to scrutiny by a broad group of editors, and more extensive sourcing for larger and more controversial articles — are currently underway to better ensure the accuracy of Wikipedia articles. But the instructional page on how to nominate an article for Peer Review insists that “articles that undergo this process should not be assumed to have greater authority than any other,” indicating that the Peer Review certification is still not a sure sign of an article’s accuracy.

While most Yale students said they knew better than to cite the Web site in an academic paper, many said they still informally make use of the Web site.

Zach Marks ’09 said he avoids using Wikipedia except as a tool of procrastination.

“Every professor has always told me that Wikipedia is not a valid source,” he said. “I don’t even really look at it — it’s just too tempting.”

But Gabe Friedman ’10, currently a student in Directed Studies, said he found the page on Thucydides particularly helpful when studying for his final exams last semester.

“I use it as an alternative to Sparknotes,” Friedman said. “I found many summaries of books that Sparknotes does not have on its database.”

Behan said he has created many fake articles for Wikipedia, the most successful of which was the entry on emysphilia.

To ensure others would find the article believable, Behan said, he had to do more than just write one entry on “emysphilia,” including creating several others relating to the fake fetish.

“It’s an art of creating a web of phoniness,” he said.

Additionally, striking an academic tone was important to creating an air of legitimacy.

“You need to write it in a way that makes it sounds like it’s something possible,” Behan said. “If you write it like an authoritative pronouncement it tends to work better.”

Comments

  • Skeptical

    So Lassonde saw a tiny mistake in one Wikipedia article and then came to the conclusion that all (roughly) 4 million articles had to be unreliable?

    Of course, unlike the Encyclopaedia Britannica which has yet to fail to make a mistake…

    Yes, some people abuse Wikipedia. But that has never been the question. The question is how many people abuse Wikipedia. So you found one nut job that fucks up Wikipedia, so what? One crazy guy won´t throw Wikipedia off balance.

    So how many people actually abuse Wikipedia?

    not that many, since numerous studies show that Wikipedia is roughly as erroneous as the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

    The Wikipedia thrashing has stop.

    • uncommons

      It did stop. In 2007….

      • FreddyHoneychurch

        I heard there’s a thing called an i-fone coming out this summer. Even stupider than wikipedia is my prediction. I’m dumping all my Apple stock.