Everyone needs to find information for some purpose. Therefore, everyone does research. This post, however, specifically means research students do for some kind of paper. What role can Wikipedia play in research from elementary school to doctoral dissertations?
Some people seem to think that research means looking at Wikipedia articles. Including people who should know better.
In 2016, Apple hired Ruslan Salakhutdinov as its first Director of Artificial Intelligence. One announcement quoted him as saying, “We’re working on the idea of trying to use external knowledge bases, If I ask you something about a particular thing, can your system basically go to Wikipedia, read a few different articles, learn some facts about the world, and provide you with the right answer?”
Wouldn’t it be more useful for an artificial intelligence program to extract information from professional literature?
How reliable is Wikipedia?
I recall quite a stir 20 years ago or so when someone published a review suggesting that Wikipedia contained no more mistakes than Encyclopaedia Britannica. More recently, Amy Bruckman of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Interactive Computing has declared that “the content of a popular Wikipedia page is actually the most reliable form of information ever created.”
She dismisses peer reviewed academic literature. Three experts, who may or may not check all the details, decide what gets published. When it does, the print version remains the same forever. Thousands of people, she says, may review a popular Wikipedia article and update it as needed.
Note that she specifies popular articles. She acknowledges that less popular articles “might not be reliable at all.” She bases her confidence on “virtue epistemology,” which, she says, “suggests that knowledge is a collaborative achievement.”
We all exist in what the interviewer called a “bubble of similarly minded folks, which shores up our confirmation bias.” Some bubbles can center on false information, but Bruckman answered that the Wikipedia editorial process generally corrects false bubbles there. Even with controversial topics, she claims, Wikipedia articles typically express a mainstream consensus.
That said, she can’t mean that finding something in Wikipedia fulfills all the requirements of research.
What does Wikipedia say about itself?
Although many if not most Wikipedia articles link to related articles on Wikipedia, Wikipedia itself declares that Wikipedia is not a reliable source. In saying so, it considers itself on par with all general reference works. But unlike most general reference works, Wikipedia allows anyone to copy a Wikipedia article and post it on their own website, with or without attribution.
In other words, you can find plenty of web sites that admit their content is copied from Wikipedia. In that case, it is a snapshot of the article as it existed at one time. The Wikipedia article itself will probably be very different after a few years. And, unfortunately, you might find copies of Wikipedia articles on other sites that do not acknowledge their source.
In a discussion on Reddit, a veteran Wikipedia editor made the following points:
- Anyone can edit. Even people with little knowledge or skill in research. Even people with some kind of bias who appreciate the anonymity of Wikipedia editors.
- As a consequence, some careless editor can misinterpret and misrepresent a source.
- The articles can change rapidly. This is especially the case with contemporary or controversial topics, which attract edit wars where groups of people with different opinions try to control the narrative.
- Some people vandalize Wikipedia articles. The result may or may not be obvious. Simply adding or deleting “not” can turn a true statement into a false one. Context might indicate something of the kind has happened, but it’s a trap for the unwary.
A hierarchy of sources
Scholars and editors divide sources for research into three broad categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary.
Wikipedia’s editorial guidelines prefer online or recently published sources. In effect, they prefer documentation that may be distantly removed from actual evidence. Also, they prefer secondary sources to primary sources. Guidelines permit primary sources but official Wikipedia policy instructs, “Do not analyze, evaluate, interpret, or synthesize material found in a primary source yourself; instead, refer to reliable secondary sources that do so.” In other words, experts must not act like experts.
Primary sources include eyewitness accounts of historical events; scientific papers describing the process and outcome of experiments or detailed observations; and the text of statutes, regulations, and court decisions. Or, in Wikipedia’s definition, they are “original materials close to an event, and are often accounts written by people who were directly involved.”
Secondary sources include most books, magazine articles, professional journal articles, online content, etc. The authors of secondary sources compile information from primary sources and other secondary sources. Then they synthesize, analyze, interpret, and evaluate it.
The same work can be both a secondary and primary source. For example, an author of a history book may have been an eyewitness to some of the events, or maybe even a participant. Most of the book will be a secondary source, but the parts that describe the author’s own experience and observations become a primary source for someone else’s research.
A tertiary source summarizes secondary sources. Tertiary sources include encyclopedias; textbooks for elementary school, high school, or college survey courses; abstracts, annotated bibliographies; etc. Wikipedia is therefore a tertiary source. That is why it declares itself unreliable as a source.
Sources appropriate for various levels of education
Elementary school students learn research and writing skills using encyclopedias. They learn how to look up articles, paraphrase them, or summarize them. Then they learn to look up multiple encyclopedia articles and synthesize the information they find. Paraphrase, summary, and synthesis are three of four basic research skills.
By middle school, teachers begin to tell students not to use encyclopedias anymore. Instead, they need to start using books. At first, the books may still be tertiary sources. By high school, students should become comfortable using a range of secondary sources, including magazine articles. And they should start to learn the fourth basic skill: evaluation of sources.
It used to be that teachers had to work to make students understand that just because they find something in print didn’t mean it’s true. Nowadays, when it can be hard to get students to look at print at all, the task has morphed into making students understand that just because they find something online doesn’t mean it’s true.
College students and graduate students ought to learn more and more sophisticated sources. Besides their textbooks, they need to read monographs and professional journals. Plus, each discipline has its own specialized encyclopedias, written by experts and every bit as respectable sources as journal articles. Also, besides secondary sources, advanced students begin to learn to use primary sources.
Notice: encyclopedias stop being an acceptable source for papers some time before high school. Yet some people who ought to know better seem to think that people ought to be able to cite Wikipedia as a reliable source.
How to use Wikipedia now that you’ve outgrown encyclopedias as sources
In a survey of 175 students from 4th grade through graduate school, an article in American Libraries reports that Wikipedia remains a popular starting point for research. In fact, experienced researchers use it more than less experienced researchers.
If you can’t cite Wikipedia as a source, how do you use it?
- Do quick fact checking. Apart from the subjects that attract edit wars or vandalism, you’ll find the same basic facts in Wikipedia as in any other ready reference—birth and death dates of historical figures, the correct spelling of technical terms, etc.
- Explore it for background information and an overview of a subject, especially one you don’t already know thoroughly.
- Check headings, words in bold, hyperlinks, etc. to find keywords you can use to search online for useful sources.
- Look at the References and Biblography sections for useful sources.
Wikipedia has become an important and reliable resource. Just don’t think that because you’ve looked there you have finished your research.
Stop source-shaming: acknowledge Wikipedia in the research process / Lynn Silipigni Connaway and Joyce Valenza, American Libraries. September 1, 2021
Using Wikipedia for academic research: home / Fresno Pacific University Library
Wikipedia: Researching with Wikipedia / Wikipedia
Wikipedia: the most reliable source on the internet? / S.C. Stuart, PC Magazine. June 3, 2021