Thursday, April 14, 2011

Wikipedia: Understanding the Black Sheep of Internet Research

by Ida Rosenthal

Around the country, students doing research are struggling to understand how to properly use Wikipedia, a website composed of user-generated content about almost every topic imaginable. With no doubt, Wikipedia can be a great tool for learning basic information, but not everything on Wikipedia is accurate, comprehensive, and unbiased. After all, content can be edited by anyone—even someone who just heard about a topic for the first time yesterday!

It’s no surprise then that most academic institutions don’t accept Wikipedia as a source for research papers. However, there are certain instances in which it is acceptable to use the website.

Here are general rules of thumb for when and how to conduct research using Wikipedia:

1. Brainstorming: If you just started working on a project, then Wikipedia may be a good place to gain a broad overview of the topic. Although you shouldn’t rely Wikipedia as a source, you can use the website as a launching pad for more specific research.

2. Recalling basic facts: Can’t remember what year the Declaration of Independence was signed? Wikipedia can help, but it shouldn’t be the only source you use to find this information. Once you see that the Declaration was signed in 1776, look to more scholarly sources to have that fact confirmed.

3. Using Wikipedia’s sources: At the bottom of each Wikipedia entry is a list of sources used to compile the Wiki article. This is important because these sources are often put together by journalists, scholars or government agencies, making them much more credible than the Wikipedia article itself.

Thus, Wikipedia isn’t an inherently bad resource, it just shouldn’t be used as the foundation for any research project.

Still confused about whether you can use Wikipedia in your next project? Call the Writing Center, schedule an appointment, and one of our wonderful writing consultants will talk with you about the pros and cons of using Wikipedia in your specific project.

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