Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Knowledge of Conventions: Sources, Ethos, and Wikipedia

Ah, the Wikipedia question. Let me begin by saying, I use it, and it's a good source for starting research on fairly broad questions or for general questions which don't *have* to be right. I rarely use it alone, just as I rarely use the internet alone. Read: when an answer needs to be right, cross check it between several sources.

The problem many in the academy have with Wikipedia is they don't get the fact that Wikipedia is based on the same thing on which all research sources are based, namely, the informed opinion and judgement of the flawed human animal. It upsets some that those writing have agendas of their own. Of course, this never happens in the academy. (Please note the sacrasm.) It upsets some that those writing don't have the credentials to prove they are experts. It upsets some that what is said on Wikipedia isn't vetted by those with credentials given by the academy.
What many don't realize is that there's a marketplace for ideas just as there's a marketplace for other comodities. Academics often adopt the stance that they are above such mundane concerns as the give and take of the market place. In society, bad ideas will be identified, that is, if they are dangerous enough, if there's reward in such identification, or if there's self-worth to be gained.

The real question, however, isn't if Wikipedia is a good source or not, it's if you should use it and, if so, when. As always, the answer is, "It depends on the rhetorical situation." If you're writing for an academic audience, that is, a discouse coummity who doesn't accept Wikipedia as a valid source, then in almost all situations, you should conform to the expectations (the conventions) of your audience. Think of such a view of sources as an ethos appeal. One of these conventions of most in the academy is to reject Wikipedia as a valuable source.

In short, you use the sources your audience values. In the academy, the valued sources are those produced by, well, the academy. This means academic journal articles, the publications of academic and professional associations, and books produced by academic presses. The best of these souces have teams of editors and readers who act as a collective jury as to the value of an article or book. These folks are respected experts. The academy has developed this means of vetting the ideas which they palce into circulation over decades. Wikipedia, which might prove a better model, has only been around years.

1 comment:

Jason Williams said...

I know a lot of people in academy have mixed feeling about Wikipedia, but I use it also. Normally, I already know something about the subject that I am searching for on Wikipedia, so I am usually just looking for additional information.

With all of that said, Wikipedia actually seems extremely accurate as a whole. For instance, I am a geek when it comes to Power Rangers. There are a massive amount of articles on Wikipedia about Power Rangers, and I think I have yet to find one that was inaccurate.

Like you said, Steve, this site just like the internet in general, is just another tool for research that should be combined with other tools so that you can be as accurate as possible.