Research Help Tutorial:
Although Students are told time and time again that Wikipedia is unreliable and should never be used as a primary source. It can often be a good starting point for research and can lead you to reliable sources.
What is Wikipedia?
Wikipedia is a “multilingual, Web-based, free-content encyclopedia project” available at http://www.wikipedia.org/. Wikipedia is written by volunteers all over the world and can be edited by anyone who has internet access. As anybody can edit Wikipedia, it can include misinformation or vandalism, however, Wikipedia generally does a good job of removing sub-standard or disputed information.
Due to the chance of information being incorrect, Wikipedia should never be used as a primary source; however, it is a great tool to gather background information on a subject.
When Should Wikipedia Be Used
If you are given a broad paper assignment by your professor, such as writing a 5 page paper on Global Warming, Wikipedia may be a good place to look to try and narrow down aspects of your chosen topic to discuss.
How can you tell if the information is reliable
As stated before, never quote Wikipedia directly. Although many of the articles draw from credible sources, the anonymity of the Wikipedia entry writer means they could have included misinformation by accident.
A general rule of thumb is that the older an article is, the more likely it is to contain correct information as it will have been viewed by more people and the mistakes will, theoretically, have been edited out. The history tab at the top of a Wikipedia article will let you see how old the article is and how many times it has been edited.
The best way to make sure the information from a reputable source is to use the handy Notes and References links at the bottom of the Wikipedia article. Wikipedia makes this easy for you by placing a number after each citation in the body of the article which links directly to the references at the bottom on the page. This ensures that you can have direct access to the original source whilst reading the body of text.
If the reference came from a website you will be given a link to the original article. If the website came from a book or article you will be given the option to click on its ISBN number which will take you to a page containing links to find the book or article in various online catalogs. If you look for your source through the provided Worldcat link, you will be able to search the UM Library Catalog to see if it contains the source.
Pros and Cons of Wikipedia
- Good place to start research.
- Constantly being updated. Books have to go through revisions if information becomes incorrect/outdated.
- Has information on new issues and popular culture topics.
- Easily accessible.
- Traditional Encyclopedias are reviewed. The anonymity of the author creates a lack of accountability if the information is incorrect.
- Reliability of the information. However this can be countered by checking the sources of the information on the page. If there is no citation, then you should not consider it fact.
- More time and effort can often be put into popular-culture issues than academic. For instance, some entries on Star Wars planets are the same size as entries for real countries.