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Pitfalls of Using Wikipedia for Academic Research

May 9, 2012 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Education.org Columnist | 1 Comments

Do you use Wikipedia for academic research? If you do, you’re not alone. Wikipedia provides a quick and easily-searchable overview of pretty much any topic on earth—whether you want to learn about the Korean War or supermassive black holes or anything in between. If you’re like many who use the site, however, you don’t cite it in your papers—and you don’t let your professors know you use it.

In reality, it’s probably not a good idea to use Wikipedia for any academic research during your online college career—even if you’re just looking for an overview and don’t count it as a cited source. Here’s a look at why.

Because even the founder says you shouldn’t

When the site’s founder discourages its use for academic purposes, it’s probably a good idea to listen. Speaking at a University of Pennsylvania conference as far back as 2006, Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder and CEO, explained that the site was ideal for casual research—but wasn’t designed for serious academic study.

Because it’s an encyclopedia

Wikipedia

In addition, the information here is fairly superficial—it would perhaps be more useful for students to search for key data regarding job prospects.

 

 

Using Wikipedia in your academic research is like using a hardcopy of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It provides a very basic definition of concepts and events, but it doesn’t provide enough solid evidence to serve as an adequate source for anything central to your crucial argument. This is because the encyclopedia provides second- or third-hand summary accounts of topics—a great way to get a general overview, but if you want to really learn about a topic, you should read the books, essays, and articles the encyclopedic material is based on.

Because it’s unregulated

Wikipedia is different from an ordinary encyclopedia because it’s created by an unmonitored and usually anonymous group of people who may or may not be experts in the topic. It maintains its integrity by relying on the community to self-correct. However, academics often find that the coverage is uneven. And “edit wars,’ vandalism, and conflicting political agendas can damage the credibility of articles on controversial subjects.

Because it gives undue weight to majority opinion

Often, majority opinion leans toward the side of factual correctness. But this isn’t always the case. There have been cases where Wikipedia has insisted on keeping information in articles that is proven to be incorrect by the weight of peer-reviewed documentation and evidence if it has been erroneously repeated by a large number of secondary sources.

Because it isn’t peer-reviewed

While the system for assuring truth in Wikipedia articles does prove effective in many cases, it doesn’t have the same credibility as a peer-reviewed journal in which facts are carefully checked by other experts in the field. This is a major reason why academics reject the idea of using Wikipedia as a credible academic resource. 

Because it is constantly changing

Unlike a traditional book or article, the Wikipedia site is constantly being updated and adjusted. If you cite a certain page as a source, it’s entirely possible that page won’t be the same when your readers check it. Some professors advocate including the date in which you read the material along with your citation—but even with that caveat, Wikipedia isn’t an ideal source.

Wikipedia may be easy and fast, but it’s not a reliable source for academic research for a multitude of reasons—starting with the fact that it’s intended to be used as an encyclopedia, not an academic resource. However, the special nature of Wikipedia gives it certain challenges that render it less dependable even than a typical hardcopy encyclopedia. It’s a good general starting point for an overview on a topic you’re not familiar with, but if you’re doing serious academic research, it’s best to delve into peer-reviewed printed and online resources.

Sources

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distanceedudev Over a year ago

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