How to Use Wikipedia for School

At some point during their college careers, many students will wonder if using Wikipedia is acceptable for sourcing research material and other necessary information. We've dissected this issue in the article below, which includes advice about how to use Wikipedia in a smart way.


Why Wikipedia Isn't the Best Primary Source

Wikipedia is a great source for fast, condensed information. But many teachers and professors have banned the use of the site as a research source. Fortunately, there's a way to use Wikipedia for school without breaking any rules or being dishonest about it.

In many ways, Wikipedia is a symbol of the best of what the Internet has to offer: it's a free, easily-accessible source of information on a wide variety of topics. On the other hand, it's also a sign of what's wrong with the Internet: a lot of the information on Wikipedia could potentially be untrue or subject to distortion through writer interpretation, and there is a lot of room devoted to exhaustive descriptions of pop culture like television shows and movies, while some more academically relevant topics aren't given the same consideration.

When researching for school, it can be tempting to latch on to the first thing you read, but it isn't a good idea to do that on Wikipedia, because so much of the information on that site is unreliable. It's better to take the perhaps boring step of doing quality research than to take for granted the veracity of what you read and end up presenting incorrect information as accurate. For this reason, you should go deeper into research than just reading a Wikipedia page. But that doesn't mean that you should avoid the site entirely.

Why Wikipedia is a Great Source... For Other Sources

Wikipedia has some institutional controls in place to avoid the very problems outlined above. These include flags requesting citations for information lacking proper support. Of course, not every page has been exhaustively flagged, which is why you shouldn't use the site itself as a source. But in the same superscript as the citation flags are footnote numbers, and these are your key to primary sources.

When you click on a footnote link in Wikipedia, you are directed to the bottom of the page, where sources are listed. Sometimes, these sources are for pages in books, and this will allow you to find the information in question by finding it in the book. Usually, though, citations on the site go to information on other websites, allowing you to continue researching on your computer.

Using Wikipedia for Research

Let's say you've exhausted the research options in your library and you're cruising around Wikipedia for ideas. If you see something that doesn't have a cited source, even if it's the exact quote you need to support an idea in a research paper, don't use it. It can be tempting, but remember: you're looking for information that will help you write a good paper so you can earn a good grade. This won't happen if your information is incorrect, and your instructor isn't likely to buy it if you list Wikipedia itself as your source for that information. But if you cite something more reputable, you'll be good to go.

That's the key to using Wikipedia as a source - making sure that the information you're getting is going to pass inspection with a teacher or professor. The fact that something is accompanied by a citation doesn't mean that you're in the clear quite yet. You have to make sure that the source itself is reputable enough to justify including that information in academic work.

A good rule of thumb to follow is that information that comes directly from government and school websites, academic journals and research organizations is safe to use for school. Wikipedia pages often cite these reputable sources, and if you're careful, you can use the online encyclopedia as a handy aggregator of useful information. If you're in doubt about the quality of a source cited on Wikipedia, just ask your teacher what they think. After all, they're the one who's going to be grading you.

Another potential online source for academic information is an electronic library.

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