To source or not to source? [wikipedia.org]

The clear liquid smells like a mixture of rotten fruit and smelly feet. The three graphs obtained from the lab work depict sharp abrupt peaks and extended plateaus, lightly sketched in pencil by school machines. The density of the liquid is 0.649 grams/milliliter and its boiling point is 50 degrees Celsius.

With this data, Melissa Saphier ’08 is required to determine the identity of an unknown compound for her AP Chemistry lab report. As the clock strikes midnight, Saphier thinks she has finally identified her compound as 2,2-dimethylbutane.

Her next step is to visit Wikipedia.org, an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. The article about 2,2-dimethylbutane is only one sentence long, but on the right side of the page is what Saphier was looking for: a table depicts the structure of her compound and lists its chemical properties. Saphier then adds Wikipedia to her bibliography and triumphantly completes her report.

AP Chemistry teacher Stephen Marsden accepts Wikipedia as a source. While this is the first year he has seen students cite Wikipedia, Marsden says he sees it “constantly” in AP lab reports.

“I don’t like it at all, considering it a lazy way out of doing some actual literature research,” Marsden said. None of his students have yet used erroneous data from Wikipedia, so Marsden permits its use and does not grade down.

“I am curious to see how this goes, but I remain suspicious,” Marsden said.

Since its launch in January 2001, the open-source encyclopedia has infiltrated the internet. Wikipedia articles are often the first result on  search engine Google.com, and according to Alexa.com, an internet site that compiles information on web traffic, the site is 11th most visited globally.

Harvard-Westlake itself has an entire Wikipedia article devoted to it, including the mission statement, descriptions of its history and extracurricular activities and even a list of notable alumni.

The online encyclopedia can be edited by anyone, regardless of credentials. In February, a prominent Wikipedia administrator and editor “Essjay,” who claimed to be a tenured professor at a private university, revealed that he had never graduated from college.

However, a study in the journal “Nature” examined science articles in both Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica and concluded that both encyclopedias are equally accurate.

Both encyclopedias had the same number of serious errors, but Wikipedia had more small factual and grammatical errors than Encyclopedia Britannica. Each Wikipedia article had an average of 3.86 errors, while the Encyclopedia Britannica had 2.92.

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, told Time magazine that Wikipedia was “a wonderful starting point for research. But it’s only a starting point because there’s always a chance that there’s something wrong.”

The history department policy correlates exactly with Wales’ advice. Students may consult Wikipedia for background, but not cite it as a source.

“I look at it if there’s something I want to know quickly,” said history teacher Nini Halkett. “I use it as a quick online source for factual information. For general background information, it’s useful.”

On the other hand, the English department discourages students from reading outside information about the literature.

“We have a policy against looking at summaries and commentaries,” English department chair Laurence Weber said.

“We don’t want those kinds of things substituting for a reader’s discovery. The thrust of the program is you’re the primary critic. We don’t want to interrupt the engagement of the student’s mind with the writer’s mind.”

However, sometimes English teachers will suggest supplemental reading to complement the literature, an exception to the policy.

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