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Wikipedia Research

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

Toward the end of the past school year, a teacher on the AP® English listserv asked for advice about what to do with a student who had cited Wikipedia in his research assignment. Should she dock him for inappropriate research?

The reactions from the other teachers on the list were, predictably, mixed, but I was intrigued to see the number of them who didn't unilaterally disapprove of the student's use of Wikipedia. To me, it clearly indicated a shift from reactions of not too long ago, when the user-created and -edited resource earned sniffs of disdain from the academic community,  and students were told by teachers and librarians that under no circumstances were they to use it in "serious" research.

Here is my take on the matter.

My definition of "research" involves a few different stages; two important ones are the "discovery" stage and the "depth and breadth" stage. While Wikipedia is definitely not the most reliable source for the latter, it is absolutely an excellent source for the former.

Many of our students come to their research topics with little or no basic knowledge of them. In many cases, they do not even have enough knowledge to come up with the search terms that will lead them to the kind of rich information they might access through scholarly databases, or even effective internet searches. They waste a lot of time plugging what they assume are inclusive search terms into Google and then sifting through the myriad pages that come up.

In the "olden days," we used to send students to general encyclopedias to start their bank of useful knowledge and terminology related to their research topics. They could get an overview of the subject, clarify some of the key concepts and their related terms, and even find lists of works cited or bibliographies for further reading, perhaps finding access to those further, richer resources in the library at school or in the community.

"But those encyclopedias were edited, their contents and further reading lists vetted," sniff the Wikipedia-haters. True enough, but they might be surprised to discover that Wikipedia, too, has considerable scholarly currency in some circumstances, and that the popular policing and self-correction, while not 100 percent effective, is still pretty solid. In fact, very often it is those with actual credentials who provide some of the most effective policing in their areas of expertise. In any case, the fact is, if you're consulting certain editions of a given encyclopedia, even Britannica, whose reputation as a top-notch general encyclopedia is sterling, you'll get some inaccuracies too.

(By the way, reading the "history" pages of Wikipedia entries can be a very enlightening experience. In fact, it's an excellent teachable opportunity for students to understand the process by which Wikipedia is created and maintained. Here is the history page for the entry "How to edit a page." An examination of these history pages can be a very useful exercise in source evaluation.)

That said, as with any other encyclopedia, Wikipedia is only a place to start the process of research -- the discovery stage.  The more important part of research -- the part we want our students to explore as fully as possible when writing their papers -- is the depth and breadth stage.

In incorporating this stage in a paper, I would never accept a citation to a general encyclopedia -- not because of the reliability (or lack thereof) of the content, but because it just doesn't constitute deep or broad research. I would hope a student in high school (or even middle school) would be embarrassed to claim that she had done extended research if she was calling an encyclopedia a source -- that's just lame, and, in my mind, one of the strongest arguments to students against using Wikipedia as a source.

Instead, students should use what they have learned from the discovery stage to deepen their research. Students who know absolutely nothing about a topic when they start out can learn enough of the basics of that topic to further their research with actual sources. Also, in many cases, the sources cited for the Wikipedia entry can be useful in themselves -- the key there is to make sure that students have a good toolbox for source evaluation to determine whether those websites are reliable or not, but that would be true with any search they were doing on the topic. Source evaluation is a skill that should be explicitly taught, which is why I teach the annotated bibliography -- we do source evaluation exercises as part of that instruction).

But back to the teacher who wanted to know whether her student's paper citing Wikipedia deserved an automatic downgrade. I wouldn't write off an entire paper if it did cite Wikipedia. It would depend what content was cited, and for what purpose within the paper; other sources cited would hopefully outweigh its use, as well as the quality of the research and writing overall. In fact, using Wikipedia just once for, say, a definition or some other kind of general information would have no effect on the paper, for me, if otherwise the paper was solid.

Actually, in some cases, Wikipedia is the best resource for finding out basic information on a topic. This is true in cases of pop culture and technology, which are constantly changing -- too much to make more static sources reliable. Also, the users writing and editing those topics are often rabid about accuracy of detail, and are the type to develop a culture out of sharing information about it publicly online. If for some reason a student is looking for source info about a topic such as these, I might accept a Wikipedia citation (amongst others -- again, corroboration creates credibility).

And personally? I often refer to Wikipedia. I don't generally take its content at face-value, usually prefacing whatever I have to say with, "Well, according to Wikipedia, anyway...," which my friends understand to be a signal to take whatever-it-is with a grain of salt. If it's important that it be 100 percent accurate, I then go on to corroborate the whatever-it-is.

Long story short, I don't disapprove entirely of Wikipedia as a source of information, and don't like to knee-jerk in reaction to students using it. But it is important that they learn to use it effectively, as with any other technological innovation we introduce into our classrooms.

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