Students in history classes at Middlebury College this spring may have to change the way they do research for papers or tests. Although they can consult the online encyclopedia Wikipedia for background, they are not allowed to cite it as a source.
Professors who drafted the new policy at the Vermont college praise the free website as a "wonderful innovation." They note the more than 1.6 million entries, the up-to-date bibliographies, and the links to relevant, often more reliable sites. But they caution that its open-editing system, which allows anyone to write or edit entries anonymously, carries a risk of error.
Just this month a dark cloud fell over Wikipedia's credibility after it was revealed that a trusted contributor who claimed to be a tenured professor of religion was actually a 24-year-old college dropout. He was also one of the appointed "arbiters" who settled disputes between contributors.
For the many "wiki"-type sites – ones that compile knowledge with volunteers – such an ethical misstep would be a test of their ability for internal correction. But it also reinforces educators' warnings to students to be "informationally literate" in how to use the six-year-old Wikipedia and to rely more on the thousands of more-scholarly databases online.
Wikipedia not only challenges the concept of what an encyclopedia is; it also raises an intriguing question: What qualifies as intellectual authority in an age of information overload, when society relies increasingly on the Internet?