It’s a question I hear all the time, from students and adults:
Is it okay to use Wikipedia for research?
If you don’t know, Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia. Because anyone can (technically) change anything in a Wikipedia article, the answer used to be “absolutely not”. Teachers didn’t trust the fact that a few people could write something in an article that could be completely untrue. That opinion is slowly changing for a few reasons. Perhaps most importantly, if someone does try to put something incorrect into an article, there are many editors who will take it out within minutes.
As a history teacher and someone who has over 2,800 edits on various wiki projects, I’ll try to give the shortest answer I can. It comes down to this: Use it, but be careful. Here are some basic rules for using Wikipedia for research:
Use the references to get more information
Just like a good ACE response, a good article will have citations (the little blue numbers after sentences) that lead to good references (the place where they got their information). This means someone else has already done the hard work of researching your topic! Use those references as a starting point for research.
Not all articles are the same
Take a look at the article on Travis’ letter from the Alamo. It’s a “featured article”, meaning that it has gone through a very tough review process to make sure it’s one of the best on the site. The article is clear and well written. There are plenty of sources from books and articles about the letter. Now look at the article on the Government of Texas. For such a big subject, the article is very short. Look at the “References” section at the bottom. There are very few sources of information, and some of those links are broken! This won’t be a very good article for research.
Actually, this is good advice for anyone, whether we’re talking about Wikipedia or anything else. Don’t just copy something directly into your paper unless you put it in quotes and write down where you found it. If you don’t, this is called plagiarization and you can get in big trouble for it. What kind of trouble? Well, it can get your kicked out of college if you do it there. As a general rule, don’t use Wikipedia as a source anyway. Use the references I mentioned above.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia logo by Wikipedia User:Nohat licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)