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Wikipedia: Credible Research Source or Not?

wikipedia editorial cartoon

How do I get students to realize that Wikipedia should not be used as a credible source (especially as they enter college), even though some of the information is factually accurate?


Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is quite clear about the uses of Wikipedia. Asked, "Do you think students and researchers should cite Wikipedia? during an interview with Business Week in 2005, he replied, "No, I don't think people should cite it, and I don't think people should cite Britannica, either... People shouldn't be citing encyclopedias in the first place. Wikipedia and other encyclopedias should...give good, solid background information to inform your studies for a deeper level."

Wikipedia is an excellent case study on research in the digital age.

That said, Wikipedia entries are generally in the forefront of preliminary web research on almost any topic. And teaching students to look critically at the reliability and credibility of any information source is fundamental to the educational process. Figuring out how to evaluate the encyclopedia, then, is one excellent starting point for teaching students how to assess massive amounts of information they're likely to encounter online both for school work and personal exploration.

Wikipedia itself is strong on self-assessment. Encyclopedia editors address accuracy in the entry Reliability of Wikipedia, compiling the results of international third-party assessments across a variety of disciplines. The consensus: the encyclopedia is as accurate as other encyclopedias. And as Cathy Davidson, Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University, points out in We Can't Ignore the Influence of Digital Technologies (Chronicle of Higher Education, March 23, 2007), unlike comparable print sources, Wikipedia errors can be corrected and often are in a matter of hours after publication.

Wikipedia credibility is more an issue of who writes what and when they write than it is a problem of accuracy.

While accuracy may not be Wikipedia's major deterrent, the collaborative nature of the wiki invites greater scrutiny and analysis. Here, again, Wikipedia helps users navigate the perils, pitfalls, and strengths of open, collaborative scholarship. Researching with Wikipedia points out that few articles are of encyclopedic quality when they first appear—they may be unbalanced, biased, and incomplete, and it takes time for contributors to find consensus. Wikipedia for Academic Use advises users to explore whether articles represent widespread norms or minority viewpoints. Each of Wikipedia's own articles fostering critical thinking includes links to further analysis and comment on the encyclopedia's value and utility.

In the Classroom

The National Writing Project White Paper Wikipedia: Friend, Not Foe suggests teaching students how entries on the site change and about the transparency with which each change is debated. "Wikipedia’s transparent and participatory nature invites visitors to question what they’re reading in ways that static, expert-driven reference texts do not." The article provides a site guide to Wikipedia, examples of classroom discussion and activities with Wikipedia, and a bibliography of further resources.

Wikipedia in the Classroom at Finding Dulcinea also offers annotated links to classroom resources related to teaching students how to approach and use Wikipedia and to lesson plans.

It's unfairly treated

My issue with people criticizing Wikipedia is that for the most part it seems to be a lie that was repeated over and over again and now everyone believes it. Everyone seems to think that Wikipedia is unreliable because anyone can edit it. I argue it's actually better than most academic sources because while anyone can edit it, they can't edit it without what they're doing coming to scrutiny or discussion (unless it's some really unimportant or obscure topic like a MC Hammer album or a Golfer's score). Alot of other websites which teachers allow students to use don't and I've seen websites I'm allowed to use in school work and teachers themselves be incorrect more often than I've seen Wikipedia be incorrect. Hell even history documentaries more often than not reinforce common misconceptions and myths rather than disspell them. Here are some examples; I was researching ancient Mesopotamia and I came across an American-Israeli project for the Middle East which talked about it. In the middle of it it called the Elamites and Iranians in general, Semites. This is completely incorrect; Elamites are Iranian, who in turn are Aryans aka people who speak Indo-European languages. Jews are semites, Babylonians are Semites, Assyrians, Arabs etc. but Persians are not. Another example was when I was watching history's documentary on the leaders of WWII and a part about WWI seemed to imply that the Germans introduced chemical warfare to WWI. This is a common myth leftover from WWI propaganda, the first people to use poisonous gases were the French with tear gas. The Germans merely expanded it. On top of this it portrayed chemical weapons incorrectly, implying that they were fired in shells. This isn't true either, they were first just released in the wind towards the enemy, introduction of shells with chemical weapons didn't come until later in the war. This is important because after gas masks were invented chemical weapons killed very few soldiers, and even before that soldiers just ducked and waited for the poisonous gas to go away. They were in general very ineffective and exaggerated as propaganda pieces (and the Allies used the same chemical weapons but punished anyone who said they were "Chemical weapons").

If Wikipedia were to make mistakes like this they would be immediately criticized and corrected, but sources which are allowed are free to make these mistakes because they're perceived to have a more authoritative background. That's my central issue; Wikipedia has a system for rooting out incorrect information and indeed major articles like say WWII are going to be pretty accurate and scrutinized and often containing conflicting viewpoints. Non-Wikipedia sources tend to lack information and make mistakes which makes me angry that Wikipedia can't be used since it's a really good source.

I am currently going to

I am currently going to school for my BSN and I would just like to comment on the issue. I will say it... I USE WIKIPEDIA A LOT. I believe that if a survey was given most people would say the same. I think the deeper and honestly more meaningful issue should be the awareness and potential usefullness of Wikipedia as that excellent starting point. One of the biggest reasons I use it is because of its organization of "mostly" meaningful information. One who is researching a topic can instantly find quite literally millions of articles on....well name it and its probably there. It is a most useful means of gathering together Important main points on a subject that one knows nothing about. I think, of coarse this would never fly with anyone, that Wikipedia should be used exclusively as a non-credible source, but only for gathering a Lamens type of knowledge about said subject to then proceed to Journal review, primary sources type research. I belive that Wikipedia should not be bashed for its uncredibility or lack of cited sources, but acknowledged for the wealth of immidiate and easy to find information to help one wrap his/her mind around a new research subject.....and no I am in no way employed, advocating, or affiliated with Wikipedia or the Wikimedia Foundation. Above all be smart. Hoddy Toddy.

Thank you

I'm a 37-year-old freshman at Mount Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon. We are currently researching source credibility in WR 121. Seeking to be a teacher when I graduate, I find your site and this article in particular, informative and worthy of sighting in the ongoing debate over Wikipedia's and the internet's standing as a valid research tool. Thanks again, Jesse


While I agree with most of what has been posted on accuracy in Wikipedia entries, often the most valuable contribution to a posting are the footnotes at the end of an entry which often cite primary sources (most often newspapers or news magazines) but also reliable secondary sources are among the sources cited. So, once again, we should caution students, but not reject Wikipedia entries out of hand.

C. Hendricks
History Dept
Long Beach City College

Wikipedia as a reliable source to use

C. Hendricks,
This is the same poinit I am trying to get across to HIST: 1301/1302 students I am a TA for. Use of Wikipedia and citing it as a reliable source sends up a red flag with me every time. I advise students to not use the information but use Wikipedia as a jump-off point to research by using the footnotes as a way of finding 100% crediable information for assignments.

W. Carpenter
Department of Humanities
University of Texas Permian Basin