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BIO 182 - Northwest - Spring 2020: Using Wikipedia

What is (or isn't!) the problem with Wikipedia?

As an online encyclopedia with crowd-sourced information, Wikipedia often provides up-to-date information from a range of perspectives and disciplinary approaches. Despite the popular belief that Wikipedia can be edited by anybody to include erroneous facts, Wikipedia actually has a system in place to control the quality of its information. The site even gives contributors guidance on what counts as a reliable source. Compared to the number of people who use the site, the number of contributors is quite small. Some schools even use Wikipedia editing as a learning activity for students. Wikipedia maintains lists of its best articles: Featured Articles & Good Articles.

One of Wikipedia's strengths is that it can be edited in real-time and the bias of one contributor can be challenged - publicly - by other users. This flexibility gives Wikipedia a certain amount of transparency. View the History & Talk pages of any Wikipedia article to see how and why it has been changed over time. This kind of information is almost never disclosed by traditional book and journal publishers.

Wikipedia's strength is also it's weakness when it comes to using Wikipedia in academic work. Because Wikipedia can be edited so easily and so often, the exact phrase or paragraph you hope to cite in your own essay may or may not be present when your professor checks your sources. This makes it difficult for your professor (and other readers) to trace out how you developed your own ideas.

But wait - isn't that a problem for all websites? Don't most websites change often?

Yeah, they do. Wikipedia isn't unique in regard to how easily it can be changed. So, why do we so quickly dismiss and discount Wikipedia?

That's a question for you to think about.

A Harvard curator and librarian speaks!

How can I use Wikipedia?

Citing Wikipedia is discouraged by most instructors, mainly for the reason above. However, Wikipedia can still be a useful research tool.

Most Wikipedia pages have a References section which demonstrates where information in the article came from.

To figure out which citation you need, look for the superscript number above a given passage in the article:

Click the citation number in the text and it will lead you to the corresponding full citation at the end of the article.

By following the links or citations in the References area, you can often find reliable sources you are allowed to cite. Always check your instructor's citation requirements and - when in doubt - Ask a Librarian!