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How to Use Wikipedia in a Smart Way

With thanks to Junli Diao at York College/CUNY for this LibGuide.

What is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a free, open and multilingual online encyclopedia written by voluntary and anonymous contributors from around the world. Yes, it is a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. "Wiki" describes an easy-to-use website where users can do collaborative editing. Originally, wiki is a Hawaiian word for "quick,"  and was first used by developer Ward Cunningham as computer terminology. Wikipedia was established by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger in 2001, and, up to present, it has become the largest and most popular Web-based reference source with 5,699,306 articles written in English.

What Wikipedia is Not

Wikipedia is not a primary source, nor a secondary source. It is a tertiary source built on the analysis of primary and secondary resources. Find more misconceptions about Wikipedia.

Who Uses Wikipedia?

A group of researchers studied more than 500 articles on the subject of Wikipedia and their finding reveals that scholars, librarians and students are the most common users. They come to Wikipedia either for light-topic information or for serious topics concerning health and legal background.

How do I use Wikipedia properly?

If Wikipedia is used appropriately, it will help you to do the research. Do remember verify whatever you find in another source. Here are a few tips:

  • Check the background information of a specific topic or the meaning of a term that doesn't sound familiar to you. For instance, who is Hubert Blaine Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenbergerdorff, Sr.?
  • Help become familiar with a research topic or serve as a starting point for a research to get a general impression. However, definitely you don't want to just stop there. Library has more resources to offer, which direct your thoughts fly high!
  • Help narrow a broad research topic or help develop a research topic. You have to check the subheadings of the Wikipedia article or ask questions to a certain aspect of it. Check "Global Warming" in Wikipedia, do scientific discussions and popular opinion view global warming differently? And why?
  • Help develop search terms that can be used in libraries' databases. Under "Global Warming," you can find "greenhouse effect," "social aspect," "effects of global warming," and "permafrost," etc., which are very useful to narrow down a topic and used as good search terms in libraries' databases.
  • Help find additional resources. At the end of Wikipedia articles, you will find a list of references (magazines, newspapers, journal article, and books, etc.) which direct you to outside resources that contributors consult. Check those works. Some are helpful and relevant to your research. However, some may surprise you and make you evaluate Wikipedia critically.
    --- The above ideas are adapted from "Using Wikipedia in Information Literacy Instruction" by Cate Calhoun

How can I evaluate Wikipedia articles?

To get the best judgment of Wikipedia articles, you have to know how Wikipedia works. To know how Wikipedia works, you have to create a Wikipedia article. To write a Wikipedia article, you may register an account and become a Wikipedian, or just simply let the computer use your IP address automatically. If you don't want to, no bother. Here are a few tips:

  • Check the topic and its corresponding length. "The longer, the better" seems to work well in Wikipedia. At least it gives some indication of the maturity of the article.
  • Check the first/introductory paragraph. Does that provide a good summary?
  • Check the subheadings and see whether they are well-developed. Logical? Coherent?
  • Read the article thoroughly. Does the article contain few errors? It is poorly-written or well-organized? If the article touches a controversial topic, does the tone sound neutral or biased?
  • Check the references at the end. How many citations come from authoritative sources (journal articles and books)? Are the links active? Do the contributors cite resources accurately? 
  • Check the talk page, which will present you the history of the particular article. When was the article created? How many contributors? Do they communicate with each other with grace? Do you see any sign of vandalism? Do you see any sign of "writing for profit?"
  • Find the same topic in another resource, for instance, Encyclopedia Britannica, and compare them.

Cite Wikipedia articles or not?

Citing encyclopedia articles in assignments is usually not recommended, and this is even more true when it comes to Wikipedia. The reason is very simple: One should not completely depend on information provided by anonymous contributors, because you do not know if the person who wrote or edited the article are qualified in that subject area or has the right information/knowledge. The fact that "any one can edit" makes Wikipedia a socialpedia and a randompedia. When one begins working on a research paper, that means you are entering the scholarly world, where validity and trustworthiness are highly valued, based on modern conventional principles and practices that have been developed for hundreds of years.

What are Wikipedia featured articles?

Wikipedia featured articles refer to those articles that are evaluated by editors as ones with best qualities, in terms of accuracy, neutrality, completeness, and style. There are 5,373 featured articles written in English language. If you intend to cite a featured article in your assigned paper, consultation with the professor is strongly recommended. 

What is Scholarpedia?

The counterpart of Wikipedia as a popular source is Scholarpedia, which is an online free encyclopedia reviewed and maintained by scholarly experts in mathematics and sciences from around the world. This is a source with credit. Explore Scholarpedia and you will get an instant impression, which is quite different from Wikipedia. What makes it different is also one of the reasons why we recommend you resources that our library subscribed.