Using Wikipedia Effectively

“To tell students not to use Wikipedia is to deprive them of one of the most useful tools on the Internet. Instead of teaching them to avoid it, we should be teaching students how to use Wikipedia wisely” (“How to Use Wikipedia Wisely”).

Misconceptions & Benefits

—the world’s largest reference website—is broadly misunderstood. Because it is written by thousands of anonymous volunteers around the world, Wikipedia generates uncertainty or skepticism in many. If just anyone can change Wikipedia, won’t there be inaccuracies? Won’t people potentially abuse that power?

The open, collaborative approach of Wikipedia means that it is susceptible to , unverified information, or subtle viewpoint promotion. However, that same open approach also increases the chances that factual errors and misleading statements will be quickly corrected, and that articles will be consistently improved and updated. Indeed, an often-cited 2005 study (Giles), as well as a follow-up study in 2012 (Casebourne et al.), found no significant differences in accuracy between Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica articles.

Sneaker in the running position

Additionally, the Wikipedia community has strict rules about providing citations or references for facts and claims, and authors must adopt a neutral point of view. Because of this, Wikipedia articles are often the best available introduction to a subject. If you are researching a complex question, starting with the resources and summaries provided by Wikipedia can give you a substantial running start on an issue. For more information about this, see the section on Background Reading. The requirement for Wikipedia authors to cite their sources has another beneficial effect. If you can find a claim expressed in a Wikipedia article, you can almost always follow the footnotes to reliable sources for further research and evidence.

Areas for Caution

Not all Wikipedia articles are useful. Some articles are incomplete or contain “citation needed” warnings. You may find very short “stub” articles that are awaiting either further expansion, or deletion. You should avoid using these types of articles for your research.

Another known concern is systemic bias in Wikipedia, including gender and racial bias. For example, of the over 130,000 active editors of Wikipedia, only 8.5% to 16% are female; of the over 1.5 million biographies on Wikipedia, only 18% are about women (Kantor). Wikipedia has launched numerous initiatives to encourage more women to become editors and to improve their coverage of women; even so, the gender gap persists. With Wikipedia as well as other, more traditional forms of publishing, we must be aware of who creates the information we consume, and understand how that impacts our knowledge about research topics and the world around us. For more on bias, see the page on Information Sources: Bias.

Using Wikipedia Wisely

With an awareness of these benefits and concerns, you can more effectively use Wikipedia for fact-checking and to find background information on a topic. Please watch the following video [2:41] that addresses some of the common misconceptions about Wikipedia and demonstrates how you can use this tool wisely, as professional fact-checkers often do.

Note: Turn on closed captions with the “CC” button or use the text transcript if you prefer to read.


Sources

Casebourne, Imogen, et al. “Assessing the Accuracy and Quality of Wikipedia Entries Compared to Popular Online Encyclopaedias: A Comparative Preliminary Study Across Disciplines in English, Spanish and Arabic.Wikimedia, Epic and Univ. of Oxford, 2012. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Giles, Jim. “Internet Encyclopaedias Go Head to Head.” Nature, vol. 438, 2005, pp. 900–901, doi.org/10.1038/438900a.

How to Use Wikipedia Wisely.” YouTube, uploaded by Stanford History Education Group, 23 Jan. 2020.

Image: “Run” by Alex Podolsky, adapted by Aloha Sargent, is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Kantor, Jessica. “Wikipedia Still Hasn’t Fixed Its Colossal Gender Gap.” Fast Company, 13 Nov. 2019.

Misconceptions and Benefits section adapted from “Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers” by Mike Caulfield, licensed under CC BY 4.0 and “Teaching with Wikipedia: A High Impact Open Educational Practice” by TJ Bliss, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introduction to College Research by Walter D. Butler; Aloha Sargent; and Kelsey Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.