Updated: Friday, 22nd November 2019 @ 2:37pm

Have you been caught out before? The positives, pitfalls and plagiarising of 'holy grail' of research... Wikipedia

Have you been caught out before? The positives, pitfalls and plagiarising of 'holy grail' of research... Wikipedia

By Matt Scrafton

We all use Wikipedia. To many of us it’s the holy grail – the first place of reference for, well, anything.

For students in particular, the unspoken truth is that Wikipedia has – and continues to be – crucial to their degree.

Essays can be won and lost on the depth and accuracy of the relevant Wiki page. Is this plagiarism, or just another form of ‘good’ research?

According to Professor Hannah Barker, the head of History at the University of Manchester, there are certainly pitfalls of using the website.

She said: “I do use Wikipedia, yes, but would I direct students there? Not without a very clear understanding on their part of its severe limitations.”

Wikipedia isn’t just abused by students. It was reported during the lead-up to the Eastleigh by-election that Conservative candidate, Maria Hutchings, had copied word-for-word the description of the town from Wikipedia on to her campaign website.

Surely this isn’t right? Or is she just using efficient use of her time and taking advantage of a great source?

It’s all the more comical considering in the run-up to the election the MP stressed her close links to Eastleigh. If she knew the place that well in the first place, why the need to ‘wiki’ it?

But more importantly, there’s the rising issue of the way students use Wikipedia – especially those at university and other top institutions.

Students are just as likely to reach for Google (and subsequently Wikipedia, it’s always the first link) than they are a textbook. And who can blame them? The internet is at your fingertips, the library is down the road.

If you’ve been told to write about the Battle of Homildon Hill, then your first point of call will be Wikipedia to read all about it. It’s inevitable.

But it’s the use of Wikipedia that is the problem and the way it’s put in to practice. Many students simply copy and paste sections of the website – verbatim – into their essays.

Academic institutions now use software programmes to sniff out possible plagiarism, but it’s not as stringent and as tough as you’d like to imagine.

For example, the University of Manchester reported 215 cases of plagiarism in the academic year 2011-12, compared to just 49 in 2003-04.

That’s not just a one-off either, the figures show a definite upwards trend of reported cases of plagiarism rising year-on-year. Is the internet solely to blame for this?

Internet research is undeniably a vital tool; it’s touted as much by lecturers and professors alike.

But it also creates confusion among students, if you can quote from a book – does that mean you can quote from a website? And what websites are ‘quote-worthy’? Who decides what sites can be trusted and which can’t?

It’s all a bit of a minefield, and the issue raises more questions than it does answers.

What do Wikipedia have to say about this?

Steve Benton, Communications Organiser at Wikimedia UK, says Wikipedia do a lot of work with higher institutions regarding plagiarism.

He said: “Attitudes to Wikipedia are changing; it’s now more credible than ever before. It’s a fabulous starting point of research.

“But it’s just like any other website in that you can just lift quotes directly off it. But there’s not much we can do about it, it’s down to the universities to clamp down.”

Wikipedia is like anything else, be it newspapers, magazines, even government documents – you shouldn’t believe everything you read.

What’s certain though, is that we’ll all continue to use Wikipedia – and so we should.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Foundation via YouTube, with thanks.

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