Tue, Aug 14, 2007 - Page 2 News List

FEATURE: Academics debate Wikipedia's value

TRUE OR FALSE The way knowledge is presented and distributed through the site has inspired Taiwanese researchers, but several educators have urged caution

By Shelley Shan  /  STAFF REPORTER

The value of Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia that has become an Internet phenomenon, generates mixed reactions among academics in Taiwan.

Jessica Cheng (鄭其嘉), an assistant professor at the Catholic Fu Jen University, said that while Wikipedia covers a wide range of material and appears to be a good starting point to look for information, editing privileges are open to anyone and much of the information is composed by non-professionals so the accuracy of the information on Wikipedia is questionable.

"I recommend my students use it as a database where they get a general idea about a certain subject," she said. "But they cannot list it as reference in their [academic] papers."

Cheng was also concerned about the way her students might handle the information taken from Wikipedia. She said that most of them do not usually scrutinize the information they get online. And during her first year as a college professor, she had already caught students who had cut and pasted materials from Web logs without properly citing sources. She found out by simply typing one or two professional-sounding sentences in the papers into Google , she said.

Others, however, defended the utility and its credibility.

"Professors need to remember that students are quite capable of judging the quality of the information they access and use, and can discriminate between trustworthy and untrustworthy, true and false," said David Pendery, an English teacher and a doctoral student at National Chengchi University.

Pendery recognized that there will always be students who simply copy information, but he said that does not mean students should be banned from using a good encyclopedia.

"Good students know to responsibly compare and contrast various sources of information for their assignments," he said. "Wikipedia is simply one source of information among others, and can be legitimately used in this way."

Pendery made a presentation at this year's Wikimania 2007 Conference, where he and four Taiwanese students discussed their experiences using Wikipedia and exchanged ideas about its value. He said that the students compared the contents in Chinese and English Wikipedias and found that the English version is "much more complete," and "less likely to be biased or politicized."

They use and learn from Wikipedia in creative and academic ways, and tend to not harshly criticize its potential pitfalls.

For S.T. Huang (黃申在), associate professor of the National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, the online encyclopedia, with its use of the open-source software "Wiki," can be used to preserve "disappearing local knowledge."

Huang and some local activists in southern Taiwan have been dedicated to the task of accumulating local knowledge for more than 10 years. He said that Wikipedia will help the team establish a local knowledge database for Taiwan that can be accessed by people all over the world.

"Most importantly, it [the database] will become a platform to integrate information of all forms from community residents as well as from professionals, be it photos, films, or those created by the use of GIS (geographical information system) software," he said.

The way knowledge is presented and distributed through Wikipedia has also inspired some researchers at Academic Sinica, who are in the process of compiling the Taiwanese edition of the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL, 生命大百科) Lai Kun-chi (賴昆祺), a researcher with the Academic Sinica's Research Center for Biodiversity, said Wikipedia has set a model of success in constructing a knowledge database using open-source software.

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