Students: The Secret To Using Wikipedia When You’re Researching An Essay

Wikipedia Secrets

Wikipedia is blocked at my school. It probably is at your school, too.

This is very frustrating for students who are looking for background information on a topic they’ve been assigned (or even chosen) to write about in their classes. Granted, it may also be true that this also frustrates those kids who want to copy and paste the entire Wikipedia article and call their work done, but that’s another problem — and one very easily discovered.

That said, I understand why Wikipedia is blocked. First, it’s not a reliable, academic-research worthy source. I mean, I just finished taking my first graduate level class and our professor would not even let us use education weblogs as sources for our annotated bibliographies, literature reviews, presentations, or projects. We had to rely on books and articles published in peer-reviewed journals. It was not even necessary to mention that Wikipedia was off limits.

I completely understand. Here are some commonly listed reasons why Wikipedia is considered an unreliable source:

Why Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source

  1. Wikipedia is unreliable because it is crowd-sourced, meaning it can be edited by anyone.
  2. Wikipedia is a tertiary source of information, much like the Encyclopedia Britannica.
  3. Wikipedia is not acceptable as a source for scholarly research at a professional level for the reasons listed above.
  4. Wikipedia has a lot of errors and has been subjected to hoaxes. They even have entire articles on their site about the errors and hoaxes.

I could stop there, and force students to wade through crumbling 20-year-old encyclopedias (because we certainly can’t afford to buy new ones or subscribe to online encyclopedias), but I think we’d be doing our students a huge disservice if we don’t teach them how to properly use this site. As a matter of fact, our failure to teach them is probably why they are using Wikipedia inappropriately to begin with.

Now that we understand why Wikipedia should not be used as a final source for academic papers — or even this blog, unless I’m quoting an article from Wikipedia about their own website and services, in which case said article is a primary source — let’s talk about how Wikipedia can be used for research — and why it should be.

Why Wikipedia is a great place for starting research

  1. Wikipedia is the largest encyclopedia ever created. It contains vastly more information than print encyclopedias.
  2. More general information sources are available on Wikipedia than in static encyclopedias.
  3. Wikipedia is updated frequently, unlike those 20 year old encyclopedias moldering in the school library. This includes repairing vandalism and inaccuracies, according to a 2004 study  (p. 575).
  4. Wikipedia includes a system for maintaining editorial control that simply doesn’t exist with an encyclopedia:
    1. Wikipedia’s primary editorial control, that ensures the bulk of its quality, is simply the sheer volume of well-intentioned editors who regularly and constantly watch over its articles. At any given time, a large number of the thousands of active Wikipedians will be using, checking, or editing the articles held. Each of these has their own watchlist, a special page that lists changes to the articles they have worked on or are otherwise choosing to watch. Hundreds of Wikipedians use automated software tools (described below) to watch edits en masse. On average, only a few minutes lie between a blatantly bad or harmful edit, and some editor noticing and acting on it. Repeated edits tend to lead rapidly to escalation of the process, further safeguards and actions, and the involvement of others, including possible use of administrator powers or dispute resolution depending on the situation.”
  5. Students shouldn’t end their research with the Britannica either. All tertiary resources are just starting places. Why not use the most up-to-date and largest?
  6. Wikipedia includes many primary and secondary resources that can be referenced for scholarly research.
  7. Wikipedia can serve as a starting point for building background information and as a basis for finding peer-reviewed articles.
  8. Outside of college courses, students will need to be able to find information quickly. We should teach them how to use Wikipedia critically.
  9. Wikipedia is just as reliable as the traditional Encyclopedia Britannica (CNET, 2005). Update. (Wikimedia, 2012)

When seeking primary and secondary resources for inclusion in a social justice unit I created as part of my graduate class, I started with Wikipedia, but used the notes and references sections to find primary and secondary sources, and yes, even articles in peer-reviewed journals that I quoted within my project. The Wikipedia article itself helped me categorize related issues and create a framework in my mind of what I needed to cover for the unit.

With this in mind, what are some ground rules for using Wikipedia correctly for research?

How to use Wikipedia

  1. Start your initial research on Wikipedia if you know nothing about a topic, if you need a refresher, or if you need to find primary and secondary sources quickly. Of course, you can also do a Google search, but Wikipedia will have already vetted (critically examined) the sources listed on their site.
  2. Click on the hyperlinks in the Wikipedia article itself to learn more about terms with which you are unfamiliar.
  3. Scroll down to the Notes and References sections of the Wikipedia article for find primary and secondary sources that you can quote, paraphrase, and cite in your paper.
  4. Use the Talk tab at the top of the Wikipedia article to found out what issues and controversies surround the topic. This information could lead to an interesting paper or, at least, help you gain a more in-depth understanding of the topic itself.
  5. DO NOT quote Wikipedia in your papers. Read the general information to get an overview of your topic, but use the primary and secondary resources in the Notes and References sections for source material that you can quote or paraphrase (and always cite!)
  6. DO NOT include Wikipedia in your bibliographies or works cited pages. Again, use the primary and secondary sources that you find in the Notes and References sections.

In short, Wikipedia is the best encyclopedia available. We should teach our students who to harness its power, how to use it critically, not banish them from it.

About the author 

Michelle Boyd Waters, M.Ed.

I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my doctorate in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education and co-Editor of the Oklahoma English Journal. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify students' voices and choices.

  1. Im in favor of WIKIPEDIA and it should be allowed in schools. However, it is the responsibility of teachers / faculty to tell their students, how it can be used. This article will definitely help teachers to understand the benefits of WIKIPEDIA and how it can applied by students in their assignments and research work. Thanks

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