Wikipedia and Academia

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.




  1. Your “Look a little closer” link doesn’t seem to do anything different than the previous wiki link. Odd considering cite note 1 goes to reference 2, cite note 2 goes to reference 3. You’d think 0 would go to 1, but it doesn’t seem to. Perhaps you wanted this instead?

  2. Jason Reece says:

    If anything, use the Wikipedia page to find links to credible sources of info (if they are referenced).  

  3. Dustin Currin says:

    That’s exactly how I use Wikipedia, Nick. I use it as a springboard. I think colleges should change how they teach students to research for papers. I was taught in my first year of college that Wikipedia was essentially bad and to stay far away from it.

    However, I tell fellow students they can use Wikipedia, but only as a starting point. Use the references at the bottom of the page to find more credible sources for research. I use this quite often when researching topics for my college papers and I consistently get A’s on my papers. It’s something that I think colleges should teach students how to use properly.

  4. I used it for academic research but never cited it. I used it to get an abstract of what a subject was about, and sometimes to look for information that would support my position. Then, I would go elsewhere for citations, quotes, etc. The Wiki citations at the end could be useful, but I usually found what I wanted on my own rather quickly.

    There really should be an “Intro to College” class that taught things like what types of sources were acceptable and those that aren’t. Also, how to direct your papers to give the teacher what they are looking for, how to find out what they are looking for, how to “recycle” your work for other classes with other instructors, how to introduce quotes in the middle of a sentence to make a smooth transition that looks professional, and more. Once you learn these things, you can go further and document your life’s experiences and get college credit for what you already have learned or even what you researched on your own, as long as it is equivalent to what you would learn in a course from an accredited institution. I got out of a year’s worth of college doing that, and got out of some courses I didn’t particularly want to take by getting a course waiver in the process of writing the documentation for that course. A fellow student got about a year and a half’s worth of college credits that way, too. After some experience, you can knock out the documentation for a course in about 6-12 hours.

    Back to Wikipedia–it’s a great source of knowledge for an overview of a subject, and you can, as another poster here said, use it as a springboard to find other articles that will help you with your paper(s).

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