WIkipedia, as most know, is an online encyclopedia that is crowd-written and crowd-edited. But since Wikipedia is produced through a global team of volunteer authors rather than industry experts, its use in academia has been extremely limited and controversial.
Studies into Wikipedia’s accuracy have typically found that it is as good, or even better, than professionally-written encyclopedias and even some textbooks, as with a 2012 study looking at the mental health information Wikipedia provided. However, it’s open nature does leave it vulnerable to misinformation, sometimes with comedic results.
As such, even Wikipedia does not consider itself to be a valid source for academic research, saying flatly, “Wikipedia is not considered a credible source,” and noting that directly citing Wikipedia in academic research is, generally, not accepted.
But despite the obvious skepticism among teachers, students continue to use Wikipedia heavily. Recent studies by Turnitin found that Wikipedia was the number one source copied from by both secondary and higher education students.
Part of this is because of the Google effect. Punch in nearly any academic-related keyword into a search engine and a Wikipedia result will, almost certainly, be on the first page. This makes it a natural first place for anyone, student or otherwise, to start learning about a subject.
Because of this, Wikipedia is going nowhere and it is important for teachers to make some peace with it and, more importantly, for students to learn how to use it well.
On that front, Wikipedia itself provides what is likely the best suggestion, that it should be used almost exclusively as a tertiary source.
Tertiary sources are collections and distillations of primary and secondary sources. They include almanacs, fact books and even, in some cases, encyclopedias. These are sources that aren’t meant to be cited on their own, but rather, help point to primary and secondary sources that are useful.
As a tertiary source, Wikipedia can be immensely useful. A well-formatted and well-written WIkipedia article will contain footnotes to many other sources including research studies, textbooks and authoritative articles, almost all of which are acceptable for an academic paper.
However, the key to using these sources is that, while it’s acceptable to use Wikipedia to get a brief introduction to the subject, these primary and secondary sources have to be evaluated, studied and cited independently.
Beyond that, it’s equally important to find and cite sources not found in the footnotes of Wikipedia. WIkipedia, like any tertiary source, is prone to bias and errors, meaning that its collection of sources needs to be checked against other sources found independently.
In short, Wikipedia can be a great tool for pointing you to primary and secondary sources that you can use in your paper, but it can not be used alone and it should not be treated as a shortcut to doing research.
Wikipedia is but one voice and one tool out of many. Your library and the Internet both have many, many more available to you and using them brings better sources, better balance, and better writing to your work.
Still, Wikipedia can be a great place to start, but it is just that, a starting point. If your research begins and ends at Wikipedia, no matter how well you cite it, the end product will almost certainly be incomplete.
For educators: Watch a webcast on Wikipedia!