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Wikipedia: Can You Trust it As a Research Source?

Jul 15, 2009 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 2 Comments

Wikipedia has grown since its creation in 2001 to contain over 8 million articles in dozens of languages. But can you rely on it as a source in your academic research—and will your professors accept it as a credible source of information? Here's an assessment of Wikipedia’s accuracy and credibility—and how to use it the right way.

How Wikipedia Works

Wikipedia is run by wiki software, which allows any user to add, edit or change content on any page on the site. The software tracks the history of each change, shows who’s made changes and when.  It also allows authors and editors to cite sources.

There are both benefits and drawbacks to this model. On the positive side, it works under a “more eyes is better” assumption that the more people have a chance to review the published information, the more errors will be caught and corrected.

Of course, there’s a downside as well—if anyone can add and change information, there’s a chance some of the info added could be wrong—or that some of the editors are serving their own agendas in publishing semi-accurate or inaccurate information.  Some topics are debated or controversial—which is why Wikipedia is often called into question as a reliable source of information.

how accurate is wikipedia?

If you do plan to use Wikipedia in your academic research, there are ways you can help ensure the information you get is accurate.

How Accurate is Wikipedia?

In 2005, The journal Nature published the results of a study comparing Wikipedia’s accuracy to that of Encyclopedia Britannica.  According to the study, Wikipedia was only slightly less accurate—it contained 162 “factual errors, omissions or misleading statements,” as compared to Encyclopedia Britannica’s 123.

This sounds surprisingly good—but under the Wikipedia model, there’s no guarantee that the particular page you’re reading is completely accurate. There’s no oversight making sure that critical aspects of subjects are completely explained or even included, and at any time some entries may be in the middle of an update—so the information you’re reading could be incomplete.

Another problem with Wikipedia is that while citing of original sources is encouraged, it’s not strictly enforced. Entry writers often don’t cite sources, which means it’s difficult to determine whether their information is actually credible or not.

Do Colleges Allow Wikipedia?

In 2007, the History department at Middlebury College voted to collectively ban Wikipedia from use as a permissible source of research material in all history classes. However, collective action like this is rare and most traditional and online colleges don’t ban the website across the board. In many cases, its availability in the classroom depends on specific professors.

If you have questions about whether you can use Wikipedia for your research in a class, talk to the professor first. Chances are, if your professor wants the class to avoid the site, it’s mentioned in the syllabus. However, this isn’t always the case. When in doubt, don’t use it—many professors don’t trust it and discourage its use.

How to Use Wikipedia

If you do plan to use Wikipedia in your academic research, there are ways you can help ensure the information you get is accurate.

Check the sources. One of the problems with Wikipedia is that it’s prone to misuse by people looking to disseminate biased information. At the end of the article you’re reading, check the sources.  If there’s only one—or all sources come from websites with a certain viewpoint—it may be a biased article.  Websites with .gov or .edu addresses and accepted news and research websites generally tend to be the most reliable sources.  It’s also critical to read the source websites to see if they actually back up what’s presented as fact in the article.

Check the writers

If the contributors are clearly experts in the field they’re writing about, it’s more likely what they’re writing is true.

Be wary of edit wars. An edit war happens when two or more contributors constantly edit and re-edit each other’s contributions to conform to opposing biases. Wikipedia now has an arbitration committee tasked with settling these issues, but edit wars still do happen on the site.

Use multiple sources

Many professors at both traditional and online schools require a minimum number of sources for research papers—but even if your instructor hasn’t specified a limit, avoid using Wikipedia as your only source of information. It’s often good for a quick overview of a subject, but can be problematic as your only source.



X-cultures Over a year ago

Can I just add that even at doctoral level, Wikipedia can be really useful. It's often my first port of call when I'm researching a new topic. It gives an overview, often written by experts, which helps me develop a background understanding of the topic and which contextualizes the articles that I then go on to read - a little bit like a university lecture would. Most of the articles are good and it's pretty easy to see which ones aren't. Multiple authors mean that multiple viewpoints are addressed. But the best thing, in my opinion, is that nowadays most entries on academic topics have a list of up-to-date references at the end, and those reference lists are usually really useful starting points for doing further reading and research. I've never really felt the necessity to cite from Wikipedia, but I wouldn't want to live without it.

Ben Pfeiffer Over a year ago

I agree, wikipedia can be a great starting point if you are doing reserach and need reliable and authorative websites that dive deepers in the subject matter. However Wikipedia is open to many factual errors and its been proven time and time again that wikipedia while helpful is not a scholarly source for information. No colleges or universities that I know will also you to cite Wikipedia as a source on a paper or thesis. Most professors will not fail you or flat out not accept any work that has been based on Wikipedia content. Same with high school teachers, they will fail you if you use or copy any information from wikipedia.

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