Wikipedic genie is out of the bottle

1st August 2008 at 01:00

When the land was young and I was still a teacher of literature, I used to try to steer my students away from using study guides as easy "cribs" for the texts they were studying. English teachers tend to think there's something sleazy about these potted guides to the great writers, the soft porn of the academic bookshop, to be kept below the counter and only supplied on request.

Needless to say, this was advice students were happy to ignore. In some cases, it might even have been counter-productive, alerting them to a promising resource of which they had previously been unaware. Whatever I said, it was clear that many of them were turning to their copies of Coles Notes or Methuen Study Guides almost before they'd read the text itself.

So, just as the boxer sways with the punch, I changed my advice. For "thou shalt not" I substituted "thou shalt - but with due caution". The guides, I told them, should be seen not as the last word but the first, the starting point for their study, not the end.

Today you could make a case for treating Wikipedia - the online encyclopaedia that allows users to edit and contribute to its vast library of articles - in the same way. Banning students from using it - as many teachers currently do - simply won't work. Students won't stop using it - they'll just stop telling you they do.

It would also be hypocritical. I find it hard to believe that even its detractors don't use it at least some of the time. I certainly do. Whatever the topic, you know you'll get a considered and balanced overview, plus a variety of useful links for further enquiry.

Aha, say the Wikisceptics at this point. Casual enquiry is one thing, serious academic work another. That's true - and partly why you need to teach students about the type of source it is, and the caution needed in using it.

There is, of course, still the objection regarding Wikipedia's open editing policy. Although the site has safeguards in place, the fact that users can edit and contribute themselves leads some to doubt both the veracity and objectivity of much of the information available.

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder, sees the open-door policy as a strength rather than a weakness. "The wide range of inputs," he has written, "means a good chance at a more balanced and more neutral coverage . We believe that encyclopaedias should not be locked up under the control of a single organisation, but part of the healthy dialogue of a free society."

Research into the accuracy of Wikipedia also tends to suggest that it is not necessarily any more wayward than conventional books of reference. A study by the US journal Nature, for instance, concluded that on scientific topics Wikipedia was as accurate as Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Today our students have more information at their fingertips than at any time in human history. And it's a good bet that that statement will be just as true in a week, a month or a decade's time. The knowledge genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and no rearguard action can stuff it back in again.

In the pre-cyberspace age, my students at least had to go to a bookshop to get their hands on cribs. Now that the knowledge supermarket is available at the click of a mouse, surely there is even more of an imperative to educate rather than proscribe?


As if to prove my Wikipoint (above), I am indebted to the online encyclopaedia for putting me right on the phrase "weasel words". I had thought that it was a byword for lies, or stretching the truth. That's because I had only ever come across it in the mouths of parliamentarians, who tend to use it as an insult for opponents. "These are weasel words," they shout across the Commons floor, implying that their adversary is being sly or underhand.

So when, halfway through a Wikipedia article on some learned topic, I came across "weasel words" in brackets after a particularly pithy point, I wondered whether this was one of those cases of academic vandalism, a scholar with a score to settle having a tilt at an old rival.

But the phrase was actually a hyperlink that took me to a "Wikipedia-style guideline" and a whole essay under the banner "Avoid Weasel Words". First came the definition: "Weasel words are small phrases attached to the beginning of a statement, such as `some argue that .' or `critics say that .'".

Then came a discussion about the undesirability of such terms in writing. High on the list is the danger of giving false credibility to a statement of dubious truth. Thus, "the moon is made of green cheese" can be given a smack of respectability by prefacing it with "experts have suggested that" or, better still, "learned and renowned experts have suggested that". As with those other old favourites, "some people" and "many people", you're never going to have to say who they are.

But why "weasel" words? What has this cuddly little creature done to deserve such ignominy? Wikipedia's style guide offers many ways of avoiding the dreaded weasel, but nothing on its derivation. For that I had to turn to an old-style work of reference: my tried and tested Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Here I read that a "weasel word" is "one which destroys the force of a statement, as a weasel ruins an egg by sucking out its contents". As it also told me that the phrase originated in the United States, I felt a little better about my own initial ignorance.

Should you by now have become so intrigued by the topic that further research is in order, be warned that not everything in Weasel Land is what it seems.

While searching for my definition, I happened upon a promising looking site named, where I was confronted by a four-page photo gallery of furry little faces and the words: "Have you recently purchased a ferret? Are you thinking about getting a ferret but want to learn more? Then this site is for you."

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