Wikipedia is not a reliable source for academic writing or research. Wikipedia is increasingly used by people in the academic community, from freshman students to professors, as an easily accessible tertiary source for information about anything and everything, and as a quick "ready reference", to get a sense of a concept or idea.
Many colleges and universities (especially in some high schools and private schools) have a policy that prohibits students from using Wikipedia as their source for doing research papers, essays, or anything equivalent. This is because Wikipedia can be edited by anyone at any moment. Although when an error is recognized, it is usually fixed. However, because Wikipedia cannot monitor thousands of edits made every day, some of those edits could contain vandalism or could be simply wrong and left unnoticed for days, weeks, months, or even years.
However, it can be noted that Wikipedia's Good Articles and Featured Articles are some degree more advanced, professional, and generally more credible than an article not labeled Good or Featured. It is because these articles are reviewed heavily and edited many, many times, passing various "tests" before being confirmed Good or Featured, that they can be used for some deeper research than usual. It is Wikipedia's Featured Articles that are especially trustworthy in contrast to normal or even good articles, as they have to pass even more rigorous "tests" to become featured, as they are to be "the best of Wikipedia", "a model for other articles", and thus, a more reliable source than average articles. Even with Featured Articles, though, an uninformed editor may introduce incorrect information.
Follow two simple rules:
Do your research properly and wisely. Remember that any encyclopedia is a starting point for research, not an ending point.
- An encyclopedia, whether a paper one like Britannica or an online one, is great for getting a general understanding of a subject before you dive into it, but then you do have to dive into your subject; using books and articles and other higher-quality sources to do better research. Research from these sources will be more detailed, more precise, more carefully reasoned, and more broadly peer reviewed than the summary you found in an encyclopedia. These will be the sources you cite in your paper. There is no need to cite Wikipedia in this case.
- An encyclopedia is great for checking general knowledge that you have forgotten, like the starting date of the First World War or the boiling point of mercury. The capital city of Canada. Citation is not needed for fact-checking general knowledge.
- Some details, such as the population of Canada, can be found on Wikipedia, but it is best to verify the information using an authoritative source, such as the CIA World Factbook.
- A very obscure detail, such as the names of the founders of the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, might be very hard to find without the aid of an encyclopedia like Wikipedia. Wikipedia is ideal in these situations because it will allow you to find the information, as well as sources which you can research to confirm that information. In any case, you should not cite Wikipedia itself, but the source provided; you should certainly look up the source yourself before citing it. If there is no source cited, consider a different method of obtaining this information.
- All encyclopedias, whether traditional paper ones or online ones, have errors. When you have this many articles, typos and other errors will sneak in.
Use your judgment. Remember that all sources have to be evaluated.
- Wikipedia is not a replacement for doing a reading assignment by your professor. Yes, Wikipedia may have a summary of an article or book on your reading list. However, the editor (or editors) who did that summary might have made errors or they might mis-characterize the contents. An editor who is biased against or for the work may add unsourced personal opinion. It is even possible that a person might introduce completely made-up, false information as a hoax.
- If a book is in your university library or published by a reputable university press, or if an article is in a standard academic journal, that means that several professors at some point have considered the information and considered it worthy to publish.
- Sourcing using a website is a game of chance. Unless you know that the website is run by a respected institution (a university or government science department), or if you have verified the information from other (reliable) sources, it is probably a bad idea to cite it. Even a university or government-run website could have information that is not reliable, if there are no gatekeepers who scrutinize the information before it is posted online.
- While reading Wikipedia articles for research, remember to consider the information carefully, and never treat what is on Wikipedia as a fact-checker.
It is the goal of Wikipedia to become a research aid that all students can trust. If you, in the course of your research, find that there is misinformation on Wikipedia, look over the basic guidelines of Wikipedia and especially what the community considers a reliable source and please consider editing the article (and even creating an account) with what you have learned. This is a part of how Wikipedia wishes to attain its goals.
- Academic studies of Wikipedia
- Reliability of Wikipedia
- WP:Research help – A simple guide to using Wikipedia in research
- Wikipedia:Researching with Wikipedia
- Bould, Dylan M., et al., "References that anyone can edit: review of Wikipedia citations in peer reviewed health science literature", 2014, British Medical Journal, 6 March 2014, 348 DOI, online from BMJ
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