By Paul Flagg, Writing Studio Consultant
“Wikipedia can be a great tool for learning and researching information. However, as with all reference works, not everything in Wikipedia is accurate, comprehensive, or unbiased.” (From “Researching with Wikipedia”)
Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, isn’t always recognized as a favorable website amongt professors and instructors of all levels of education. It’s an extremely popular source for information, however, so why is it criticized so much in academia? And when is it okay to use Wikipedia?
“Wikipedia is not considered a credible source”—This is the first sentence in the Wikipedia article for “Academic Use.” Despite lacking credibility, it is used by many, even in the academic sphere, whether by middle school, high school, or college students or university professors—and even doctors. The fact that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone is what diminishes the content’s authority. This isn’t to say that Wikipedia is a bad source; rather, it is an information source that should be approached with caution and should be used solely as a tertiary source. Generally, it’s not supposed to be used in formal research or for publication, but it is excellent for basic learning (or what is often called informal research) to get a general idea of a specific topic.
Even Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said to Business Week in 2005 that the site should not be cited as a source, further stating that encyclopedias in general should not be cited. In terms of research, encyclopedias, including Wikipedia, provide background information and can be used as a guiding source but not as the main substance of one’s research. Encyclopedias, particularly print versions, become outdated quickly, and the information included may no longer be relevant. One of the many benefits of Wikipedia is that it can be updated instantaneously, contributing to the information’s timeliness; however, this same facet can be regarded as its downfall. Information on Wikipedia can be edited or changed at any given moment, and even though Wikipedia has several bots and policies in place that oftentimes protect pages from vandalism, it is not completely foolproof.
In an academic sense, Wikipedia can be a good “jumping-off point” for research because it provides sufficient background information (not to be cited, however). External links from Wikipedia articles connect information-seekers with relevant outside information, and references point users toward specific articles, journals, and other credible sources on which Wikipedia content is based more often than not. So next time you question why Wikipedia isn’t allowed as a source in your research paper, remember that it isn’t considered credible but that there are valuable ways to use this free online collaborative encyclopedia.