General Research Guides

Using Wikipedia

If you've 'Googled' any topic recently, you've probably found links to a website called Wikipedia near the top of your results list. Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that differs from other encyclopedias in a significant way: along with reading the articles in Wikipedia, anyone can add or edit articles however they like. According to their website, Wikipedia was created in 2001 and has since grown to be one of the largest sites on the web, passing one million entries in the English-language version of the encyclopedia in March of 2006. It is a collaborative effort with articles written by individuals from around the world using wiki software that allows content to be added or changed by anyone. As a result, Wikipedia is a dynamic work that is always growing, always changing.

Limitations and Advantages of Wikipedia

Many of the articles in Wikipedia are long and comprehensive, and many entries exist in Wikipedia for which no equivalent entry may be found in any other encyclopedia. As a result, it can be quite tempting to use the information found there in essays and lab reports. Those who would do so, however, are advised to use caution. While Wikipedia is without question a valuable and informative resource, there is an important concern to take into account when using it:

Because anyone can add or change content, there is an inherent lack of reliability and stability to Wikipedia. Authors of articles may not necessarily be experts on the topics they write about, leaving a lot of room for errors, misinformation, and bias.

The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, has recently stressed that Wikipedia may not be suitable for academic uses, saying, "It is pretty good, but you have to be careful with it. It's good enough knowledge, depending on what your purpose is."

While it is important to be aware of the limitations of Wikipedia, there are some advantages as well. It is easy to access online for free at Articles are often added quickly and, as a result, coverage of current events and new technology in particular is quite extensive. Printed encyclopedias can take years to add new entries and those entries may not cover a topic in as exhaustive detail as those in Wikipedia.

Appropriateness as a Source

Whenever you do research it is important to think about the type and quality of resource required for your current assignment. Consider whether you are looking for fact or opinion, the depth into which you want to explore a topic, the importance of reliability and accuracy, and the importance of timely or recent information. Also ask yourself, "Is an encyclopedia, print or online, an appropriate source of information for this project?" Then decide if Wikipedia is an appropriate resource for your current needs. If you're still unsure, talk to your professor or to a librarian.

You may decide that the best use of Wikipedia might be as a starting point at which to gain contextual information about a topic before moving on to more detailed or more reliable information sources. Other starting points for research can be found in the library's Subject Research Guides.

As with any source of information, in print or on the web, you may also want to explore and evaluate additional equivalent resources simply to be sure that your facts are correct.

Citing Wikipedia

Wikipedia: Citing Wikipedia
Wikipedia provides a page informing its users how to cite its content using the following styles: APA (American Psychological Association), MLA (Modern Language Association), MHRA (Modern Humanities Research Association), Chicago Manual of Style, CBE/CSE (Council of Science Editors), Bluebook, BibTeX, and AMA (American Medical Association).

Citing Sources
Gould Library's guide to citation guides and handbooks and tips on citing internet sources.

Further Information

"7 Things You Should Know About Wikipedia"
by the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative
A quick overview of the pros and cons of using Wikipedia as an academic resource.

"The Book Stops Here"
by Daniel H. Pink, Wired
A profile of Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, and a brief history of the project.

"I Want My Wikipedia!"
by Barry X. Miller, Karl Helicher, & Teresa Berry; Library Journal
Three academic librarians evaluate the usefulness of Wikipedia's coverage of popular culture, current affairs, and science topics.

by K.G. Schneider
A noted librarian and blogger gives her opinion on Wikipedia.

"Evaluating Web Pages: Questions to Ask and Techniques to Apply"
from the UC Berkeley - Teaching Library Internet Workshops
Librarians from the University of California Berkeley provide tips on evaluating the content of web resources.

"Internet Encyclopedias Go Head to Head" (behind subscription wall: click here to view from off-campus)

by Jim Giles, Nature
A study conducted by Nature finds that Wikipedia is only slightly less accurate than the online Encyclopaedia Britannica, igniting a firestorm of controversy.

"Fatally Flawed" (PDF)
by Encylopaedia Britannica, Inc.
Encyclopaedia Britannica
responds point-by-point to Nature's study.

"A Stand Against Wikipedia"
by Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed
Middlebury College's History Department bans the use of Wikipedia as a research source in academic work.

"Wikipedia Makes No Guarantee of Validity"
Wikipedia's disclaimer on the validity of its contents and links to the disclaimers of other online encyclopedias.

"Wikipedia: External Peer Review"
Wikipedia's own page on the Nature/Britannica controversy and other critical reviews of Wikipedia's content.

"Wikipedia Reaches One Million Articles"
by The Wikimedia Foundation
A press release announcing the addition of the one millionth entry in English to Wikipedia.

"See Who's Editing Wikipedia - Diebold, the CIA, a Campaign"
by John Borland, Wired
A story about CalTech graduate student Virgil Griffith, who built a search tool that traces IP addresses of those who make Wikipedia changes.

This Research Guide By:

  • Matt Bailey