Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia, written collectively by the people who use it. It is a special type of website designed to make collaboration easy, called a wiki. Many people are constantly improving Wikipedia, making thousands of changes per hour. All of these changes are recorded in article histories and recent changes. (Wikipedia, 2015)
You will notice I cited Wikipedia above. I did that on purpose as an example of what you should never do. Although Wikipedia has been gaining acceptance in academia over the last decade, it is still not considered a reliable source.
Wikipedia is open source which means that anyone is allowed to edit. Image being able to go to a website and change what you see on the page. This is the concept of Wikipedia and is at the heart of its goal. Wikipedia can be a great source of information, but there has been friction between it and academia due to its open source concept.
In this guide, I am going to show you a little history of Wikipedia and its relationship with academia. In addition, I will show you how using Wikipedia can be beneficial and actually help you with your research. Proper use of Wikipedia can be beneficial to both students and teachers. Again, I said “proper,” which is the focus of this guide.
History of Wikipedia:
Wikipedia was launched in 2001 and was initially intended to be edited by experts as an offshoot of a sister site known as Nupedia. Within two years, Nupedia was replaced by Wikipedia, allowing anyone willing to edit to have a say in what is written on the site.
Wikipedia has grown over the years and by 2009 had over 3,000,000 entries. This is a lot of typing for volunteer editors who use their free time to add content to the world’s largest encyclopedia.
Here are a few statistics about Wikipedia that will show you how popular it has become (as of December 2013):
- 30 million articles
- Available in over 285 languages through sister projects (French Wikipedia, German Wikipedia, etc.)
- 70,000 active editors
- 530 million visitors worldwide each month
Quick Fact: Ward Cunningham is the inventor of wiki software. He never patented his invention and it has since been picked up and used by programmers all over the world. When asked why he never obtained a patent, he stated that he didn’t think people would be willing to pay money for it.
History of Academia on Wikipedia:
Here we go. The feud between Wikipedia and Academia continues. What feud you ask? Well, let’s just say there has been a small power struggle between the two over the reliability of Wikipedia content and using it as a reliable source. By small feud, I mean a decade long war that has caused scholars to write long research papers, journal articles, and countless guides on what is and is not acceptable use of Wikipedia in academia.
Here are just a few that you can peruse if you have the time:
What’s Wrong with Wikipedia?, Harvard Guide to Citing Source
Wikipedia in Academic Studies: Corrupting or Improving the Quality of Teaching and Learning?, Chapter 17 of Looking Toward the Future of Technology-Enhanced Education
Wikipedia: Reflections on Use and Acceptance in Academic Environments, Brian Whalley, Ariadne.ac.uk
Over the years, Wikipedia has become more and more accepted in academia, but to a point. Some institutions allow you to cite it, some don’t. However, there is a trend in academia where students are allowed to use Wikipedia as a starting point of research (something we will get into further in a minute). Regardless of policies, a 2010 report found that 8 out of 10 students turn to Wikipedia for research.
So where do Wikipedia and academia stand with each other? Who cares really? When you finish this guide, you will be able to conduct research like a pro while the two continue to duke it out behind the scenes.
Quick Fact – The Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that oversees Wikipedia and its sister projects, has put forth a great effort trying to include academia with Wikipedia. In addition to reaching out and asking for expert help with contributions of content, it also hosts edit-thons at universities and supports Wikipedian-in-residence programs throughout the world.
Citing Wikipedia as a Source:
Why would you ever want to cite Wikipedia? Well, as it is a great collection of information, using a Wikipedia article on the topic you are writing about seems like a good idea. However, keep in mind that the articles are written by volunteers and oversight is nothing like that of a newspaper or peer-reviewed journal. Even Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales warned students “not to refer to Wikipedia.”
Here are a few reasons (outside of academia) why I would advise NOT citing Wikipedia as your source:
- Even Wikipedia admits that it isn’t reliable.
- Wikipedia doesn’t even allow you to cite Wikipedia within Wikipedia. What? Let me re-phrase. You cannot use Wikipedia as a source in any other Wikipedia article.
- What you cited as a source today, can and will change tomorrow.
- Several hoaxes have been introduced into Wikipedia in the past where inaccurate information was purposefully put there to mislead readers.
In addition to not being reliable, Wikipedia is not something that your professors will see as putting in effort. This means that simply citing Wikipedia in a paper will make you appear lazy as if you aren’t taking the class seriously. At this level of academia, more is expected of you.
How to use Wikipedia for Research:
There are a couple of ways that you can use Wikipedia for research. Well, there are actually dozens, but only a few that are effective. They include searching articles, help from Wikipedia projects, and using the reference desk.
- Searching articles
- Wikipedia projects
- Reference desk
The most common way to conduct research with Wikipedia is to go right to the article on the topic you want to write about. To show you the best way to use an article for research, I am going to use the Wikipedia article on the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa that took place in 2014.
So far so good. You found the article and see it contains tons of information. The first thing you want to research is who was “patient zero,” better referred to as the “index” case.
Scrolling down the article, you see the information right in front of you. According to Wikipedia, “researchers generally believe that a one-year-old boy, later identified as Emile Ouamouno, who died in December 2013 in the village of Meliandou, Guekedou Prefecture, Guinea, was the index case of the current Ebola virus disease epidemic.” But wait a minute! We can’t cite Wikipedia.
Here’s how you do it.
In the picture above, you will see that I circled reference numbers next to the information we want to cite. These link to the sources at the bottom of the page (pictured below).
Conveniently, these references are all hyperlinked to the actual source. So, let’s try reference #41 which leads to CNN.
So, we are now at CNN, the original source for the information contained in the Wikipedia article. All you need to do is put the information into your own words and cite CNN as your reference. In the end, it would look something similar to this:
“The Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 is believed to have originated with a one-year-old named Emile Ouamouno. He died in December 2013 with his family becoming ill shortly afterward. The boy was from the village of Meliandou, Guekedou Perfecture, Guinea which is now considered the original source of the outbreak.” (CNN, 2014).
Notice that nothing in that sentence says anything about Wikipedia. It does not plagiarize Wikipedia, nor does it state anything contrary to the original source. On a side note, make sure to read the source so that you are sure it actually states what is written in the Wikipedia article. Editors sometimes place their own interpretation of a source into the Wikipedia articles as opposed to what the source actually says.
Using articles is a great way to conduct your research. Thanks to volunteer contributors, articles are full of valuable references that are right at your fingertips. The majority of them are hyperlinked so you can click on them directly and do not need to spend countless hours on Google trying to find only a few reliable sources.
Quick Fact – Did you know that you cannot technically plagiarize Wikipedia? All content on Wikipedia is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License that you will see posted at the end of each page. In fact, you can actually make printable books from Wikipedia articles with an editing tool provided right on the website.
Wikipedia projects are a great tool when using Wikipedia for research. Projects are made up of editors who join the project for the purpose of editing articles on a specific topic. There are Wiki-projects for music, cities, science, health, and just about every other topic you can think of.
To find a project related to your research, you can go to the Wikipedia Project Directory.
So, let’s pretend that we are going to stay in the health field and do research on AIDS (sorry, there is not Wiki-project on Ebola). The first place we would go to is the Wikipedia Project Directory (link above). Once we are there, we click on the health tab which will take us to a list of all health related Wiki-projects (screenshot below).
The next step is obvious (if not obvious, here is a hint – “click on the AIDS hyperlink”). This will take you to the project page for AIDS. You will notice in the screenshot that there are zero participants in this project. I used this as an example as you can actually see form the directory which projects are active or not. You will want to choose one that has plenty of participants or you are unlikely to get any help.
Once you are on a project page, you will find links to numerous articles relating to the project. It is a great location to find many Wikipedia articles to start your research from. You can also send messages to the participants and ask them questions if you wish. You could wind up picking up an expert quote for whatever paper you are writing.
Quick Fact – If you are looking for an expert in a particular field, you will likely find them in the various Wiki-projects. You will find that doctors gravitate towards medical projects, lawyers to law, etc.
The reference desk is one of my favorites. It is similar to a forum and is made up of regular Wikipedia contributors who are there to help you through your Wikipedia experience. It works the same way a reference desk does at a library, only in the virtual realm. Simply post questions about the topic you are researching and sit back while others point you in the right direction.
Once you are directed to the specific pages on the topic you are looking for, you will need to go back to the “searching articles” or “Wikipedia projects” sections previously discussed in this guide.
The reference desk is also a great place to find valuable resources for your research. Want to search outside of Wikipedia? The reference desk can still help. And, this is where it pays to be a Wikipedia contributor. If you are a regular contributor, you can request free access to numerous archive databases, including newspapers, journals, and other valuable sources. There are different requirements for each archive (most are contingent on length of time you have edited and the number of edits you have performed) so read through them carefully.
Your Academic Use:
As a final thought, keep in mind that I am not your professor or school administrator. This means that although I am providing information on how to use Wikipedia correctly, the final say in how you use Wikipedia is up to your educational institution and the individual professor for each class. If in doubt, share this guide with them and show them how you plan to use Wikipedia for general knowledge and finding sources, not as a source itself.
- Check with your school on its policy on Wikipedia use.
- Check with your individual professors about their policy on Wikipedia use.
- Use Wikipedia as a research tool (the starting point) and not as the ultimate authority.
Quick Fact (or my opinion) – Some students will simply browse this guide without taking into consideration its content. They will end up citing Wikipedia anyway and wind up having to take this class a second time.
Additional reading if you have the time and are not already exhausted from reading my rant.
Wikipedia Guide to Notability, Wood 2015
Wikipedia, Academia, and Science, Aibar 2015
Should university students use Wikipedia?, The Guardian 2013
Is Wikipedia a Reliable Legal Authority?, Above The Law 2014
Wikipedia’s Gender Problem Gets a Closer Look, Live Science 2014
Wikipedia editors are a dying breed. The reason? Mobile, The Guardian 2015