Christian Vandendorpe seeks to restore trust in the online encyclopaedia

Photo: Courtesy of Christian Vandendorpe It might just be OK to cite Wikipedia in your next paper. Former University of Ottawa professor was recently named the first honorary Wikipedian at the University of Victoria.

“Wikipedia brings open access knowledge to everyone with an Internet connection,” said Vandendorpe, who has studied the website since 2005.

The new job consists of working with University of Victoria researchers and students on Wikipedia pages related to the university and to his research interests. Vandendorpe aims to “draw attention to the importance of Wikipedia in providing knowledge for the general public, and to act as a role model in convincing other academics to improve the encyclopedia.”

It’s a tough road he’s set out on, since the vast majority of high school teachers and university professors forbid their students from using Wikipedia as a source in their schoolwork. Vandendorpe said he hopes to quell academia’s fierce phobia of Wikipedia by encouraging university professors and their students to contribute to the website.

“Every contributor tries to make the article as best as possible. If the writing does not meet Wikipedia’s standards… then it will be deleted by someone in the community of editors.” Many of the qualms about Wikipedia, which was founded in 2001, come from print companies like Encyclopedia Britannica trying to “protect their turf,” he said, along with outdated stereotypes about the website. Wikipedia was “amateurish in the beginning, but now has thousands of editors working in a continuous peer review,” he said.

Patrick McCurdy, an associate professor in the department of communications at the U of O, has students in certain classes edit Wikipedia for assignments, but warns it’s not the “be-all end-all” of sources.

“It’s an amazing, valuable, initial resource,” said McCurdy, “but you need to go beyond it. It’s no different than just using the Encyclopedia Britannica article for information.”

McCurdy, who also sits on the Academic Fraud Committee of the Faculty of Arts, added that one of the most common forms of plagiarism he sees is students stealing from Wikipedia. “That to me is an academic failure. We want students to think about their research, not just copy and paste the answers Wikipedia has.”

McCurdy noted that Wikipedia has changed people’s specialization of knowledge in many ways. “You can be an expert on a TV show or have a famous grandparent, and you can contribute to Wikipedia about that,” he said. “It makes people question what knowledge really is.”

The University of Victoria is the first Canadian university to have a Wikipedian-in-residence, but other global institutes have created similar positions, including the Smithsonian, the British Museum, the National Library of Norway, and the Federal Archives of Switzerland. Vandendorpe will hold the position until 2016.