When Is Using Wikipedia for Research OK?
The Wikipedia “W” Logo.
As most of you know, Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia service that is completely open to anybody to edit any article they want. If that sounds a little sketchy, most teachers would probably agree with you. By now, it’s very common to hear your teacher or professor advise you to “stay out of Wikipedia for your research”, which at first sounds completely sensible, but it really isn’t once you look into the facts.
According to a 2008 paper in Reference Services Review about the reliability of Wikipedia compared to Encyclopædia Britannica and other well-trusted sources, Wikipedia entries generally had an 80% accuracy rate overall, while the other encyclopedias had a 95-96% accuracy rate. However, an IBM research paper claims that the site has “surprisingly effective self-healing capabilities”, as in errors in Wikipedia articles get fixed very fast.
The debate between teachers who don’t want any chance of their class using false information for projects and the students who want one simple place to find all their data has been going on for a very long time. Unfortunately, a lot of arguments from either side are (ironically) based on untrue statements. Some may claim that Wikipedia has “filled the minds of our youth with lies” (which, for the most part, isn’t true), or that “Wikipedia is run entirely by professionals, making it completely trustworthy” (also not true). These arguments show how hypocritical some people can be about the site’s reliability.
My opinion on when Wikipedia is acceptable for in-class use is pretty simple: check the original sources.
What that means is that although Wikipedia may have the feel of a typical encyclopedia, I think that the site’s real talent is being a hub for different articles from across the web, with select pieces of information being mixed in to one article. Instead of just taking notes straight from and citing Wikipedia, I’d recommend that you check out the original source, fact-check it, and then cite it. It stops teachers from repeatedly reminding you of “the dangers of Wikipedia”, and still lets you (the student) easily continue your research on the 7th most visited site in the world.
Nicholas Lucchetto, The ESSAYER
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