Science students more likely to use Wikipedia
A majority of college students use Wikipedia.org for course-related research, and students majoring in architecture, engineering and science are more likely to do so, according to a study published by Alison Head and Michael Eisenberg in the journal First Monday on March 1.
More than 2,000 students from six colleges and universities in the United States, including both public and private universities and four- and two-year colleges, were surveyed for the study. Students at Princeton did not participate in the study.
The study found that 82 percent of respondents reported using Wikipedia to obtain background information on a topic. While 52 percent reported that they were frequent users, only 22 percent said that they rarely, if ever, used the website. Students in four-year colleges were also more likely than those in two-year colleges to use Wikipedia for research.
Princeton students, librarians and faculty alike agreed that Wikipedia serves as a good starting point for research but should not be used as a cited source.
“With a professor’s blessing, Wikipedia can be very useful,” law and legal studies librarian David Hollander said. “I would like to mention, however, that there are librarians and professors that would disagree with me, and believe that it should never be used. I just don’t agree.”
Nancy Pressman-Levy, head of Stokes Library, said that non-students also make frequent use of Wikipedia. “Even faculty use it to get started on a topic when you don’t know anything about it and you need a quick source to consult,” she explained.
“You just have to be very careful about the information, as you need to with all websites,” she added, because “there’s no authority behind it.”
History professor Philip Nord expressed a similar sentiment. “I look at Wikipedia all the time, but I wouldn’t ever rely on it, nor would I advise students to do it,” he said.
Anthropology professor Janet Monge said that she “actively disallows students to use it as a source for a paper, or something you’re going to reference.”
Grace Zhu ’12, a prospective molecular biology major, said that Wikipedia “gives a good understanding before you proceed” in research, and noted that she uses Wikipedia “all the time.”
Wynne Callon ’13 said she uses the reference links provided at the bottom of each Wikipedia entry as a starting point for research, but never uses the website as a source.
The study’s findings that more science than humanities majors and more students at four-year colleges than two-year colleges use Wikipedia, along with the existance of an inverse correlation between Wikipedia usage and library usage, surprised some members of the University community.
Pressman-Levy noted that she did not expect “to see a stronger emphasis on science majors” using Wikipedia, adding that “students use Wikipedia on campus across the board. I work with social science students and faculty, and all seem to be heavy users of Wikipedia.”
“Maybe humanities students are more attuned to using alternative sources such as books and texts, or science majors tend to be more science-oriented coming out of high school and thus are less exposed to different research tools,” she noted, offering an explanation for the results.
Peiwen Xu ’13 said she felt that “humanities students might use Wikipedia for references more often than science and engineering students,” adding that “students may have some terms and dates to check, and Wikipedia can be a good tool for that.”
Economics professor Burton Malkiel GS ’64, however, attributed the findings to the type of information available online.
“I suppose that isn’t surprising in the sense that — just thinking in terms of finance — there is so much stuff that is on the Internet ... that it strikes me as being completely reasonable that a lot of people would use it,” he said.
History and history of science librarian Elizabeth Bennett said that students from four-year colleges may utilize Wikipedia more than their counterparts at two-year colleges because of the schools’ academic rigor. She explained that two-year college courses and assignments may be more structured and self-contained with little outside research to do, whereas Princeton courses typically set an end goal and leave most of the work to the students.
Nord had a different opinion, noting that students at four-year colleges may use more Internet and technology in general compared to their counterparts at two-year colleges.
Pressman-Levy also said she found the negative correlation between librarian consultation and Wikipedia usage surprising, because she frequently uses Wikipedia when helping students begin their research.
“Maybe some students and librarians don’t want to admit they use it,” she said.