Letting Wikipedia users write your term paper…

foxtrot on wikipedia
Foxtrot on Wikipedia via Ross Mayfield

While writing on OReilly’s Rough Cuts, I seem to recall a wonderful story where gutsy students posted half-done papers on Wikipedia, and returned later to find them auto-magically done. I don’t know if I was in a stupor when I first heard this, but worst of all, I can’t seem to find the source for some reason (there’s a reason why as you’ll see…).

After sharing this with educator/blogger Steve Dembo, he became intrigued and did further research into my story. He returned soon after with a pletora of information and proof that this story hasn’t existed yet (spooky!):

I don’t think it ever actually happened with students (that we know of) yet. There was the article/experiment written by Esquire, which was then covered by News.com. Then LifeHacker wrote a blog post suggesting people do the same for term papers. Several people later picked up on that and expanded it a bit (Kaironews, Teachnology, etc) But I think it’s all theory, not something that anyone has actually done yet

While this could be considered as an exploitive use of social technology (and public goodness), it might also end up being more disruptive than getting actual work done. Certain types of work may be as straightforward as the correction of facts, but it’s really another thing to correct an idea. I feel that academia pushes the latter by encouraging us to explore new boundaries to rediscover our facts. We do this by proving / disproving old and new ideas and setting up specific arguments which would easily get convoluted in a large scale discussion. I’m not sure how this research process could be turned into an open collaborative one, since it would be better under a small group discussion at most.

In the case of the Esquire experiment (see actual Wikipedia entry), Andy Baio of Waxy.org said that every factual error was corrected within minutes, and the focus moved on to refinement, clarification and making the article more readable.

But it doesn’t work all the time…
Wales pointed to a recent experiment in which The Los Angeles Times tried a “wikitorial” so its readers could collaboratively work on editorials. He said that “It was more or less a complete disaster”. He believes that it was because they didn’t have a community built up and ended up with a lot of random people vandalizing the wiki. Wikipedia user, Kelly Martin, recalled a television station failing to get Wikipedians to co-edit an article. Reason: The directions and guidelines were unclear.

How can Wikipedia help the typical graduate student then?
I can think of many advantages to sharing and collaborating research work on Wikipedia. Besides the possibility of ending up with a stunning paper, I would get to know others in my field as well as to help to market my work. I do have some immediate concerns: Can academic work be put on Creative Commons or is it owned by the university? If I do put up a draft paper on Wikipedia, will my university still honor it?

Until I figure out the legal ramifications of putting my own papers on Wikipedia, I’ll take heed to Many-to-Many reader J-Lon who summed it best by saying that “Wikipedia is a place to start research, not a place to finish it”.