It is very unlikely that you have reached this stage of your academic career without having visited Wikipedia at least once. It's often the top item on a Google search and it's a place where many students know they'll find something about their topic. According to Wikipedia, it's the 5th most popular site in the world!
However, it is also likely that you have been warned by a teacher or instructor NOT to trust what you find there or NOT to use it. Why? This page is designed to give you the information you need to use Wikipedia wisely.
What is Wikipedia?
Wikipedia is an online, collaborative encyclopedia. Anyone can contribute to its articles - yes, even you!
How does Wikipedia make sure that information is accurate?
Well, in truth, it can't, because Wikipedia isn't a corporation (like Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.) or an institution (like Oxford University) or a government organization (like StatsCan). It is anyone and everyone who wants to contribute.
However, Wikipedia isn't the Wild West where anything goes. There are volunteer editors who monitor sections of Wikipedia. These editors are chosen as experts in their field and their job is to remove information they know is wrong or misleading.
In the grey area outside of hard facts, they review the article for proper references and citations. Can the author back up their claims with a trusted source? If not, the editor places a note on the article like this:
They also monitor articles for self-promotion, bias and other elements that could lead to misleading information.
As well, the editors review articles for "encyclopedic tone", encouraging contributors to submit writing with an academic style.
What's the best way to use Wikipedia?
Like all encyclopedias, Wikipedia is not a place to end your research, but it can be a good launching point from which to start. Wikipedia articles provide an overview of a topic, which can be used in varying degrees depending on the depth of the article.
Look for these things in a Wikipedia article:
What words are used to talk about the topic, its aspects and sub-topics? Are there any names of people, places or organizations mentioned? Use these terms in your search strategy when looking in the library catalogue or an academic article database.
Wikipedia articles often offer general background information about their topic. Once you understand the background, you can narrow in on one aspect of the topic that interests you. Area of caution: Make sure claims made in the article are properly cited or are verified by other, more authoritative sources you find.
Good Wikipedia articles outline the sides of a dispute or describe the various, potentially conflicting beliefs those involved in the topic may hold. Use these controversies as a basis for reflecting on other sources you find. Consider the arguments, find other resources which weigh in, and then form your own opinion. Area of caution: if you see a note like the one above, or think that an article about a controversial topic is not giving voice to both sides, it may represent bias. Opinions can be woven into the fabric of seemingly "factual" material - with any source, it is important to read with a skeptical eye and look for other resources from authorities you trust to back up what you find.
Citations and references
As mentioned above, good articles have lots of citations to back up their claims. Use these citations - find the articles/book and read them! The same goes for the list of references. If you want to quote or include information from a Wikipedia article, and it's a cited piece of information, locate the original source, read it, then use that citation for your assignment.
Further Reading/External Links
These sections can be valuable pointers to direct you to valuable resources for your topic. Area of caution: As with any website, make sure you take the necessary steps to evaluate its content before including it as fact in your assignment.
This time-lapse video shows the first 12 hours in the life of the Wikipedia article about the Virginia Tech shootings in 2005.
Is Wikipedia as reliable as the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica?
A few years ago, a class at UBC got an unusual assignment: to write a Wikipedia article. If it became a "featured article", one of exceptional quality as judged by the Wikipedia editors, the group would get an A+.