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Evaluating sources: Using Wikipedia

A guide to evaluating the credibility of the sources of information you use in your assignments.

Wikipedia - would you want to use it?

Anyone can write and edit the articles in Wikipedia.

 

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopaedia containing millions of articles. Anyone can write and edit the articles. This is seen by some as a weakness and by others as a strength.

As anyone can write or edit an article you can never be sure that the information is not biased, out of date or simply incorrect.

On the other hand Wikipedias supporters claim that the fact that so many people are constantly reviewing and updating the articles means that any inaccuracies are swiftly identified and corrected.

Some lecturers are opposed to students using Wikipedia and will mark down assignments which cite Wikipedia. On the other hand Wikipedia can be seen as a valuable and unique resource which many students use anyway... with or without their lecturers' approval.

This page will discuss the pros and cons of using Wikipedia and, if you are going to use it, how to use it.

Wikipedia vs. traditional encyclopedias

 

Traditional encyclopedias

Wikipedia

Author

 

The articles in prestigious encyclopedias are written by identified experts.

 

Authors range from experts to cranks.  Which is which can be hard to identify.

 

Review

 

The articles in prestigious encyclopedias are reviewed by experienced editors and scholars.

 

All changes in Wikipedia are listed in the Recent Changes page which is open to public scrutiny. Thus, it is hoped, incorrect or biased information is swiftly identified and corrected.

Cost

 

Payment usually required.

 

Free, donations optional.

 

Currency

 

Revised editions of paper encyclopedias are often only published every 5 or 10 years.

 

Articles in online encyclopedias, but most notably Wikipedia, can be very up to date.

 

Extent

 

The number and size of articles tend to reflect the constraints of their print origins. There is often limited illustrative matter and references.

Articles can be more discursive and on a wider range of topics. There can be extensive accompanying media and long reference lists.

In 2004 a journalist invited people to add mistakes to the Wikipedia entry on the city of Syracuse to see how long it took for someone to fix them. All the mistakes were corrected within hours. Some said this showed Wikipedia’s self healing abilities, even from deliberate vandalism. Others pointed out that for those hours Wikipedia was incorrect. (Criticism of Wikipedia, 2009)

A 2005 report in Nature found that there was little to choose between the accuracy of information in Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica when they compared articles on the same scientific topics.  (Giles, 2005)

How to use Wikipedia

1.  Background Research – identifying the main players, topics and concepts.

Wikipedia, like any encyclopedia can be very useful in providing overviews of subjects. Academic journals, such as the ones you will find in JCUs databases, assume that you already have specialised knowledge of the subject. They use technical terms and complex concepts without explanation. Because of this they are often not the best place to start researching a new topic. Wikipedia articles include a general overview of the subject, provide a useful introduction and define new or important terms, names and concepts.
 
2.  References – follow the links to resources you can use.
 
The best Wikipedia articles contain references to their sources.  Some of these sources have little credibility such as self-authored web sites. Other references are to highly credible sources such as peer-reviewed academic journal articles. Even if you cannot cite the actual Wikipedia article, check out the sources referenced at the bottom of the page because you can quite often follow the links to primary sources that you can cite in your assignments.
 

3.  Use Wikipedia to identify search terms.

A good Wikipedia article will identify the main players and terms associated with a subject. Use these as search terms when you search JCU databases for academic articles. You will still need to evaluate articles that you find in the JCU databases but many will be citable.

Professor Wikipedia

Using Wikipedia for academic research

References

References

 

Criticism of Wikipedia. (2009, November 30). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved November 30, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Criticisms

Giles, J. (2005). Internet encyclopaedias go head to head. Nature, 438, 900-901. doi:10.1038/438900a 

Wikipedia

Check the internal evidence

Look at the discussion and history tabs along the top of the article:

Has the article been widely discussed? Are the arguments valid? Neutral? Verifiable?

Has important information in previous versions been radically altered and, if so, do you need to research this further?

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