Anyone who’s ever written a paper or article at a post-secondary institution knows the drill. Don’t use Wikipedia. It’s nearly an unspoken rule, a social norm. Some professors will dock a letter grade if their students use it. Others will go even further, giving the student a zero – maybe even expelling them from their class. But why such a big deal? After all, Wikipedia’s one of the greatest sources of information on the internet. A collaborative encyclopedia, with millions upon millions of users updating, editing, and peer-reviewing every iota of content on the site. Is the notion that Wikipedia’s not a reliable source of information just a bunch of holier-than-thou academics blowing smoke, or is there something to what they’re saying?

Believe it or not, they actually do have a point.

Sure, Wikipedia’s great if you’re just learning about a subject. You literally have a world of easily-accessible, easily-readable information right at your fingertips. The problem is, anyone can edit it. If someone wants to swing in and make a few subtle changes to an article about machine code, those changes might not be caught immediately. You’ve got a bunch of people, therefore, sourcing faulty information. Further, since Wikipedia’s entirely put together by men and women who might not necessarily have the educational background or official expertise in their topic, not all of the information on the site is necessarily accurate or complete.

Using Wikipedia as a source is, therefore, a bad idea. Of course, you should all know this already. What some of you might not know, however, is that you shouldn’t outright ignore Wikipedia as a resource. Let’s say you’re writing a scholarly paper on how the PC has changed the face of Western society since its inception. Naturally, you’re going to want to start with the company that developed one of the first consumer PCs- Microsoft. Take a look at the Wikipedia entry for the company. Notice anything? Look a little closer.

There are over 110 citations in that article alone. Now you see where I’m going with this, right?

Using Wikipedia for all your research might be a bad idea. However, nobody said anything about using it to direct your research. Rather than a source, Wikipedia should be used as a springboard- a platform to help you formulate bigger ideas and better arguments. Use it to inform yourself, but take everything on the site with a grain of salt- expand beyond the site once you’ve gotten your framework down.

That’s how you should use Wikipedia for research.