It’s hard to imagine an internet without Wikipedia. It’s my primary source for information in trivia writing, and it works nicely when I need to check on basic info for an editing project.
Wikipedia’s reputation tends to be mixed, though, for the good but also obvious reason that anyone can edit it to say whatever they want. Its reputation doesn’t stop us from using the site as a preliminary source that we may or may not—depending on our present needs—look beyond for corroboration on what we’re looking for.
I would like to discuss productive and unproductive approaches to Wikipedia, taking into account that it is just as unproductive to reject all information found on Wikipedia as it is to accept it unquestioningly. Wikipedia can teach us to be more investigative researchers as well as participants in the diffusion and dissemination of knowledge.
An Informal Source of Knowledge
I only taught undergraduates for three years, but in that short time, I came across numerous students who tried to do as much research on Wikipedia as they could get away with. The longer they’d been in college, of course, the more likely they were to have had a class or two in which professors had forbidden the use of Wikipedia for any purpose, under any circumstances.
Wikipedia is just like any other source of information in that whether or not it’s appropriate to use it depends on what you’re trying to use it for.
If you’re writing an academic paper of any kind, think of Wikipedia as an investigative tool rather than as a reliable source for info. That is, it has more in common with a card catalog than an academic journal. Consider using it to start your research, give you ideas, give you direction, spark your interest, and to check on basic pieces of info like spellings of names, geography, and dates.
When you get a good sense of what you’re going to be writing on, however, take a close look at any citations that are associated with the information you want to use. Wikipedia uses footnotes that often lead to other links that you can quickly check. The links themselves are not always good academic sources, either, but they can head you in the right direction for finding the sources you need.
Take the info that you want to learn more about and Google it—particularly in the search engine’s Google Scholar section. That’s where you’ll find the books and journal articles that you should be using as sources for your academic paper. If you’re not sure how to find those sources at that point, ask your university librarian for help.
This is not any different from ideal use of academic sources, either. When you find a journal article that refers to original research conducted by a different author at a different time, it’s best to track down the previous research to use for your source rather than using the later source alone.
A Source for Informal Knowledge
I used Wikipedia as a source in my dissertation, but I did so in a very particular way. One of the subtopics in my dissertation was griefers, which are defined in Wikipedia as “player[s] in a multiplayer video game who deliberately irritate and harass other players within the game.” I used Wikipedia for exactly the purpose I just did in this paragraph: to introduce a concept that has popular currency.
That is, because Wikipedia is the product of popular collaboration, it was appropriate to use as a source for information that exists also as the product of popular awareness.
Griefers and griefing are concepts that don’t quite qualify as slang but are so subcultural that they haven’t found their way into major dictionaries yet. They’re jargon, in a sense, but they’re a level of jargon that would show up in a reference source that is contributed to by “computer people”—users of the multiplayer video games to which the definition refers.
The fact that anyone can edit it is a benefit for a use like this because it means that a definition that has been refined by multiple editors and/or has been there for several years’ worth of page revisions is likely to ring true to anyone who has checked in on that page.
A Source of Knowledge for Informal Uses
Though you don’t want to use Wikipedia as an “academic source,” it can still work just fine as a source for material of much more casual kinds. There’s no real need to avoid it if, for instance, you’ve just gone to a classic film at an old, refurbished movie palace and want to know when the theater was built and by whom. By all means, consult Wikipedia when you want to cross-reference models of Chevy trucks that share their names with NHL teams (Avalanche, by the way). If you want to figure out who that really familiar actor is in that tiny part in an episode of Supernatural, Wikipedia might be easier to browse than IMDb.
We look up info for nonacademic uses all the time. Just because it’s not ideal for hard-hitting purposes doesn’t mean it should be avoided entirely. And as I noted above, it’s a great jumping-off point for academic uses, too, as long as you continue on to the original sources for your actual research.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.