Online sources, they say, have made it easier for students to copy material and submit it as their own writing (plagiarism). Much of that material, opponents claim, may be false because it has not gone through the editing and review process traditional for books and magazines.
FREEDOM OF THE PRESS
In a recent talk on Freedom of the Press in the Digital Age at our local Philosophy Club, I used these examples to illustrate how "the authorities" always try to shut down alternative sources and technologies that undermine their monopoly control on information. The academic elite that controls the publishing industry and the main-stream press hates it when they lose control because they simply do not trust ordinary people.
THE AUTHORITIES ALWAYS FAVOR CENSORSHIP
Back around 1200 AD Pope Innocent III banned the common language (vulgate) Bible because, he said “… The mysteries of the faith … cannot be understood by everyone but only by those who are qualified to understand them with informed intelligence.” In other words, if you don't understand Latin you have to listen to the interpretations of "qualified" experts, i.e., the Pope and priests. In the 1450's when moveable type printing came into use, drastically reducing the cost of reproducing books which up til then had been a virtual monopoly of the Church and the Crown, no one could own a printing press without a license.
The English Parliament, in 1643, noting "Abuses, and frequent Disorders, in printing many false, forged, scandalous, seditious, libelous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books" by people who "set up sundry private Printing Presses in Corners" ordered that no "Book, Pamphlet, or Paper, shall from henceforth be printed, … unless … first approved of, and licensed …” John Milton (yes the famous poet) responded the following year by publishing an UNLICENSED speech opposed to any kind of prior restraint on the freedom to publish. In general, the English-speaking world and our Western-oriented allies have the greatest degree of press freedom that has ever existed in the history of the world.
THE INTERNET (AND WIKIPEDIA) OFFERS ULTIMATE FREEDOM
The advent of the Internet is the ultimate in freedom to publish without approval from "the authorities". Every day, millions of ordinary people post to Blogs like this one that nearly everyone in the world can read if they choose to. No licensing, no prior restraint by the government! Of course, if the information is libelous, injured parties can sue. If it is a matter of diffference of opinion, opponents are free to publish their own rebuttal on the Internet.
So, back to the ban on academic citations of Wikipedia and other online sources. Why does the academic elite think that books and magazines and newspapers published by established organizations are more reliable than Wikipedia? Well, they say, these organizations have editors and research staffs that act as "gatekeepers" to protect the truth. That is true, but it is also true that most of these gatekeepers have similar opinions on controversial topics. Would you make the Pope and priests the sole gatekeepers for religious information as Pope Innocent III wanted? If not, why would you put elite academics in charge of information about history and politics and similar topics where opinion and fact are not easy to separate?
I think Wikipedia, pound for pound, has a greater truth content than The New York Times. Yes, anyone can edit items into Wikipedia, but, if false information is edited into an item about an important topic, there are far many more people who are prepared to edit it out and make sure it is correct. Wikipedia has a system of voluntary reviewers. If an item is challenged, the author is given an opportunity to correct it and, if he or she fails to do so, there is a review and voting process that can delete the material. Corrections thus appear in hours or days. How long does it take to correct something in a book or magazine?
Wikipedia has Google-backed competition in the form of Google Knols (where a Knol is a bit of knowledge). Again, anyone may post Knol topics, but, unlike Wikipedia, authors must identify themselves. I have published 11 Knols that, in total, garnered nearly 17,000 page views as of a month ago.
As many of you know, I teach an online graduate course in System Engineering. I encourage my students to use online sources as wll as traditional published materials. I actually prefer online sources because it makes it easier for me to detect and prove plagiarism. When I see a phrase or sentence I do not think a particular student has written, and if it is not in quote marks with a proper citation, I do a Google on the phrase, using quote marks at either end. If I get a direct hit, I look to see if the rest of the sentence or paragraph is also copied, and, if so, I have positive proof of violation of the Academic Integrity policy of the university.