User:Bashereyre/Wikipedia is no substitute for reading widely

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Any inventor patenting a device today would gladly settle for his product becoming so embedded in the public consciousness that within a short space of time it becomes a generic term (such as “hoovering” ) that is almost universally recognised. People now routinely “Google” anything they do not know and that search engine will place what Wikipedia has to say about it at the top, or very near the top, of the search list. Many computer users often “cut out the middle man” and go straight to Wikipedia. So if that is the case, can Wikipedia save us all the bother of actually reading primary and secondary sources?

I am lucky enough to have been been educated at an English grammar school and one of the world’s most renowned and rigorous universities. I know that to write a decent essay you need to read widely and be able to compare sources. Like most students I was also always pushed for time and used to slip fictitious books into my bibliography. Convinced our history teacher did not read past the first paragraph we all decided to put more and more ridiculous titles into our reading sources. Eventually he asked me what “The Art of Drumming” by Cozy Powell was about. The essay I re-call was on the American Civil War and sad to say, I compounded my error by saying it was a book about how the martial beat of the trained drummer inspired the troops- I don’t think I fooled him. Nor at university where my mild mannered tutor seemed to have an almost super-human ability to zone in on the one listed book I had cribbed from the bibliography at the back of the more basic text I had managed to digest. Time has moved on and my step-son is now himself studying History at University, and the first piece of advice he was given was: “Don’t go to Wikipedia, cut and paste an article, doctor it a bit and add a biography from the British Library On-line. As an editing facility open to all there is nothing to stop us opening an account, altering a date/ spelling of a proper noun and sitting back to see how many of you copy it across."

I recall something Pete Sampras said once. Asked if anything should be done to stop tennis becoming less predictable, he said no it was fine as it was. But, pressed the interviewer, what if we softened the balls, made the court bigger, did away with the break between games,, went to one serve- wouldn’t that open it up a bit? His reply…”The same guys would still win”

Exactly. Wikipedia is not there to create shortcuts for coursework, pad out skimpy research or bump up grades. Sadly,I believe, there are sites out there which (for a fee)offer such services. If anyone is lazy enough to use Wikipedia as a sole source they were probably never an A-starred student anyway.

Nor is it the preserve of the frustrated author, a figure akin to those fathers who live out their own sporting failures shouting and screaming at their own children from the touchline. Wikipedia is open to all, and sometimes people with good subject knowledge on less academic subjects are put off when their edits are tidied up by pedantic grammarians and the original sense lost.

Nor is it a place for new theories, however passionately you believe in them. If you believe Mad King Ludwig was murdered, find the original sources, research it thoroughly and submit your work to a publisher. Don't post it on Wikipedia.

No, Wikipedia really is the sum total of its editors' knowledge, and as such worth visiting to see if anyone has collated information from other sources into a one-stop quick-start introduction to the subject. It can never replicate the majesty of the Grove Dictionary of Music for example, but that does not mean a reference source somewhere should not document the myriadline-up changes of, say, Hawkwind.

The big guns on Wikipedia often delete things I would deem worthy of inclusion, and conversely leave untouched some truly terrible subject choices, but that skips away from the point. That such a site exists at all is remarkable. That it has not been bought out by an avaricious commercial giant a source of delight. It brings great pleasure to the ( I would argue) majority of people worldwide who wish to broaden their knowledge base and is, without compromising its standards, now as well known a brand as any on the planet- a big achievement, and one that needs to be built on in the years ahead.