Published on October 30th, 2013 | by Matt Haberfeld0
Research on the Internet
Note: The links in this article are no longer relevant. Wikipedia has updated their Armet article while the site it was originally plagiarized from is no longer online. The article’s message still rings true but the specifics are no longer as poignant. 1-5-2010
There’s no denying that modern technology is awesome. The internet in particular gets high marks in my book as one of the most influential inventions to grace our culture. But like with all technology, there are unseen side effects. We all know that the internet has it’s dark side, and I would like to highlight one of the dim pixels in an otherwise flawless LCD screen of wonder. Not pornography, or viruses, or somethingawful.com, I’m talking about internet research.
Just about anything you want to know is available on the internet. Just type the name into the search engine and you’ll get 300,000 hits on your topic. The pinnacle of our collective knowledge on the internet is the Wikipedia. A vast database of user submitted articles on every subject in every language. It’s the Library of Alexandria at our fingertips. Or is it?
Wikipedia is not all that it’s cracked up to be. The first thing you have to consider when you’re reading these articles is what kind of person wrote them. The chances are very good that it’s not a college professor, or anyone of scholarly bent. More than likely it’s someone like me with an interest in a particular subject and the ability to form coherent thoughts in print (sometimes). I’m not trying to say anything about the quality of the writing, but the Wikipedia is a far cry from authoritative subject matter.
But wait you say! The Wikipedia allows you to cite your article. It is just like a college term paper, only electronic. Sometimes this is true. Sometimes it is not. I have found plenty of articles that “cite” other websites. The website they cite of course has no references, so it’s like saying that your uncle Bill’s friend works at the university and he told you it was true, so it must be true. You have to make sure that the article cites a book (and then you should go read that book), or if it references a website make sure it’s not a blog, or hosted by Geocities or Angelfire.
By far the worst part of the Wikipedia is the blatant plagiarism that passes for original work. For example, take a look at this entry on the Armet, a 15th century medieval helmet. Now take a look at this website where the text was stolen from. The Wikipedia entry even contains the phrase, “Note the similarities between the armet above and the close helmet to the lower left.” even though the pictures were not copied over from the original page.
Now this is not Wikipedia’s fault. As I said before, the Wikipedia is a great idea, and I use it all the time. But only as a casual reference! Information from Wikipedia does not belong in term papers, just like any information from the internet does not belong in term papers. There is a fundamental degradation in our society’s ability to do legitimate research as a side effect of the internet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not on a holy crusade to ruin the lives of college students, but any professor that allows their students to cite the internet as a reference is encouraging bad habits.
Let me sum up so that we’re all clear on where I stand:
Internet = Awesome
Wikipedia = Awesome
Using Wikipedia in your term paper = Not Awesome
Relying on the Internet as the sole source of factual information = Not Awesome
The internet is a great tool. It’s fast and it’s easy, but it’s not reliable. I wouldn’t rely on WebMD.com to tell me whether I have cancer or not, and that hot stock tip that’s guaranteed to increase my wealth over 500% isn’t a wise investment. It’s the same with research; use the internet to get a general idea, and then go to your local library or buy a book on the subject and do some actual research. You’ll actually come out smarter for it, which is the whole point of research in the first place.