Rule No. 1
Use Wikipedia as a starting point for your research, but don't cite it unless you can exhaustively demonstrate that it is the only authoritative source on a particular issue.
Wikipedia is a freely accessible online encyclopedia.
However, the big difference between it and other encyclopedias is that its information is contributed by its users – readers like you. This means that the entries are always being added to/changed.
The value of Wikipedia is that:
- it is freely available
- some entries can be the most up-to date available, especially on more esoteric or obscure issues, and
- there is a history of discussion on some topics which allows you to see how contributors arrive at particular points of view.
But because users contribute information, Wikipedia entries need to be treated with caution as research sources. Entries:
- are not necessarily written by experts in the field
- can be heavily biased
- can be of substandard quality, subject to misinformation and error.
Must I evaluate the quality of information?
Should I use Wikipedia?
- Yes, as a starting point in your research – a way of approaching a concept, idea, event, issue.... It may be the only available account of a new phenomenon. Because it is continuously being updated, there are often entries which are yet to be included in print encyclopedias, or other online encyclopedias.
- Yes, because in some cases the information is actually authoritative. But you need to establish this authority by testing the information against more scholarly authoritative sources and evaluating its worth.
Should I cite Wikipedia in my essays?
As a general rule, no. This said for two key reasons:
- No, because it is, after all, an encyclopedia, and they have limited authority as a primary research source.
- No, because Wikipedia is not selective in terms of what is/isn't included in an entry, and that means that the information want to cite may not be authoritative – that is, it has not been through a rigorous scholarly review process.
So the message is: use Wikipedia as a starting point, but don't cite it unless you can exhaustively demonstrate that it is the only authoritative source on a particular issue.
Further reading and comment on Wikipedia:
- 'Wikipedia Founder Discourages Academic Use of His Creation', 12 June, 2006.
- 'Student Use of Wikipedia', 16 November, 2006.