Why Wikipedia Makes a Great Research Source

The “controversy” over Wikipedia has now hit the local evening news. I guess that means that it is big time now. A typical Wikipeida story now seems to go like this: professors or teachers somewhere have decided to ban Wikipedia as a legitimate research source. They have finally discovered that there are actual errors there. Cut to shot of a bewildered student saying “I though it was a reliable source.” Cut back to a shot of the Wikipedia site, with a voice over that says “Wikipedia agrees with this ban.”

This seems to be a “throwing out the baby with the bath water” scenario. The baby being Wikipedia, and the bathwater being bad research techniques that are being used by students in schools and colleges today. Let’s look at this a little closer.

Wikipedia contains errors. But so does any journal or encyclopedia that you can pick up off of the self at any library. That’s just a fact of life. Humans make errors. Information changes. Printed materials will go out of date, after all. Some studies have found Wikipedia to be more accurate that Encyclopedia Brittanica online, actually. Instead of spending time pointing out the inaccuracies of any one source, why don’t we teach students how to search multiple sources to determine what is accurate, and then go with the accurate sources?

I think Wikipedia is a great source, especially for rough drafts. Here is why:

  1. It’s always more current than most other sources. The editors keep it up to date pretty well. At least quicker than most published sources can.
  2. Context, context, context. And hyper links. This is the greatest advantage of Wikipedia. The authors have easy methods of linking words inside of articles to other articles. This gives readers an immediate sense of how one article relates to the existing body of information. Follow the links to gain a great set of connections for constructing learning. I’m a big believer in constructivism, so this is huge in my book. Wikipedia is a lean, mean, built-in constructivism-spittin’ machine, in my opinion.
  3. References. Wikipedia articles frequently have a vast lists of references at the end of many articles, which gives the reader an instance list of other references to look at. This is why I say Wikipedia is a great source for rough drafts. Final drafts should always contain a large number of diverse sources, probably none of which should be Wikipedia. Wikipedia can change, and if the specific information you were referencing in your paper is changed, your whole paper might fall apart.

2 thoughts on “Why Wikipedia Makes a Great Research Source

  1. I recently participated in a panel discussion for K-12 educators. I represented college students, while my fellow panelists represented high school and middle school students to the assembled educators. Wikipedia was one of the topics we discussed, and the conversation was more interesting than I had expected.

    I only use Wikipedia for personal information gathering — never as a source for academic papers. I think my instructors would suffer some kind of fit if I turned in anything with Wikipedia as a reference.

    The high school student, on the other hand, claimed that she and her friends use Wikipedia as their primary reference for every assignment. I was shocked that her teachers allow it, especially since she is enrolled in International Baccalauriate and Advanced Placement classes. Shouldn’t high school students, let alone IB and AP level students, know how to find academic sources for their work?

    There are some Wikipedia contributors who claim to have the expertise to back up their submissions. The problem is that, until now, no one verified their claims. After a particularly embarrassing incident in which a contributor was revealed to be a fraud, Wikipedia has begun to require proof of identity from those contributors who claim credentials:


  2. I agree completely that Wikipedia should not be used as a source; however, I recommend people use it (as Matt mentioned) as a starting point. Based on just the number of people who look through (and essentially proof) the pages of Wikipedia, it’s safe to assume that most of the content in there is valid.

    This conversation is very similar to the whole Cathedral vs. the Bazaar topic. Is proprietary software such as Microsoft products which are created and maintained by a relatively small group without outside scrutiny (the cathedral) more secure than open source software (the bazaar) that has thousands (tens of thousands) of people scouring the code for holes? Most open source users will immediately jump onto the tables and declare that their option is much more secure. Most Microsoft users will sheepishly agree with them.

    Likewise, is Wikipedia (the bazaar) any less valid than ‘legitimate’ sources?

    (By the way, ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’ is actually a very interesting read. If you get a chance, I highly recommend reading it at this url, or read the wikipedia entry here.

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