Does Wikipedia Have a Place in Academic Research?

Saint Louis, Missouri, USA - February 18, 2011: A photo of the main launch screen for Wikipedia's website. Launched in 2001, Wikipedia contains over 18 million articles written and edited by volunteers around the world.If you are a certain age—before the Internet was a “thing”—you  probably remember reaching for and thumbing through a cumbersome volume of an encyclopedia to help you with an assignment or essay.  During the mid to late 1990s, encyclopedias evolved by appearing on CD-ROM.  Jumping ahead a bit more, traditional printed encyclopedias became a relic of the past thanks to the vast amount of information available on the internet at the click of a mouse.  The launch of Wikipedia in 2001 took the knowledge revolution further.  Knowledge became accessible, easy, and democratic; all it takes to contribute to Wikipedia is a computer and an internet connection

But is there a downside to Wikipedia, especially when it is used as a resource for academic research? Does Wikipedia have a place in scholarly research?

This is the topic explored in a webinar hosted by Colin Elliott, who is Manager, Web Projects & Services, at Athabasca University Library, and Jennifer Rempel, the AU Information Literacy and Resource Access Librarian.  As research specialists, they encounter a lot of myths and misinformation about using Wikipedia as an academic resource and want to help AU students discern when and how to use it.

They note that the biggest difference between a traditional printed encyclopedia and Wikipedia, other than the format, is that encyclopedia entries are heavily fact-checked and reviewed before they are published.  However, the checks and balances used are also the major downfall of printed research materials such as encyclopedias.  What makes Wikipedia so attractive is that changes and updates to entries can be instantly made, bypassing the review process.  But the trade-off is that, more often than not, the quality and reliability of information suffers.

The AU librarians caution Wikipedia users to tread carefully.  The ease of usability and the very nature of the wiki format means that anyone can edit information and editors can use any name or pseudonym they choose, which provides a cover that users can hide behind.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that their contributions are unreliable, but it often casts doubt on the validity of the information.  Articles can also be “vandalized”, where false information can be deliberately inserted to defame an individual or hijack a controversial subject.  Using Wikipedia for research is definitely a case of user beware.

Despite the cautions surrounding this ad-hoc resource, students love Wikipedia because it is so easily accessible.  It is often the first source that comes to mind for finding something out online.  After all, many academic sources require a paid subscription.  Although it is fine to use Wikipedia to become familiar with a topic as a springboard to further research, students should never cite Wikipedia articles as sources in papers or assignments; not because of academic snobbery, but because of the issues surrounding trustworthiness and validity of the information.  However, one aspect of Wikipedia that is often beneficial to student research is the bibliography section that accompanies many articles.  Some of the cited sources in Wikipedia articles are genuine scholarly sources.  These make deeper research easier.  Also, many articles contain a revision history box or “Talk” page which can also yield some great insights into a topic.

Students should also learn to discern whether a Wikipedia article meets the criteria for a “good” article or whether the information is poor.  Sometimes a Wikipeda article is flagged as incomplete or needing further citations to back it up, but a savvy student will develop an intuition about what is quality information.

Even though online information is instantly accessible—and AU students are, by nature, independent learners—the best resource for tricky research problems is still the library team at the AU Library.  Jennifer Rempel notes that “the Internet is of course amazing, but it doesn’t replace libraries, and its ascendance means that, now more than ever, our role as Librarians is to encourage the critical evaluation of information.” She says that the internet introduces a lot of other issues into research, such as accidental plagiarism.  “I can see why students would be paranoid about accidental plagiarism.  It’s a thing that can happen, and the onus of responsibility is the student to make sure that they don’t commit it; that said, it’s the job of Librarians and instructors, I think, to equip students to be fully aware of plagiarism and academic integrity in general.”

Although not as immediate as Wikipedia, AU students can access the AU Library and ask a Librarian about any topic, or for ideas if they are stuck on a research problem.  The AU Library can be reached through email via the AU Library homepage , or students can phone call during business hours, which are 8:30 to 4:30, Monday to Friday, Mountain Time.  A member of the library team will get back to you as soon as possible.  AU’s Reference Librarians can help you to come up with a search strategy if you are having difficulty with any aspect of research and can also point students in the right direction of accessing materials.

For students wishing to hone their research skills further, AU also offers the course COMM 100, Introduction to Research and Study Skills.  There are also other discipline-specific research skills courses.

Becoming a savvy researcher is a vitally important academic skill.  Wikipedia is a tempting and easy option, but it should be used only as a starting point in research, not the end.

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