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Wikipedia can be a valuable, powerful tool for researching, whether it's personal or academic research. Here, we'll explore some ways that you can get the most from Wikipedia without relying on it as a cited resource for your academic work.
Wikipedia is essentially an online, user-edited encyclopedia. Encyclopedias range from the very general (think Encyclopaedia Britannica or World Book) to much more focused subject-specific encyclopedias. We should all be cautious when using encyclopedias for academic work (it's not just Wikipedia), as our library guide on reference sources details. Wikipedia, however, is so popular and so comprehensive that it's hard to imagine an entry it wouldn't have some record of within its easily searchable depths. Recognizing its popularity, most internet search engines now pull up Wikipedia as the first search result, and we're all trained to scan for it when we need a quick, easy answer. One of the reasons for its success, its anyone can edit policy, is also one of the things that makes it a problematic resource. When anyone can edit, how do you know the content is valid?
Most teachers, particularly at the college level, are not going to let you get away with citing Wikipedia as a resource. There are two very distinct reasons for this. First of all, there's just no good reason to cite a resource as problematic as Wikipedia when so many other, more reliable resources exist. Secondly, one of your professor's jobs is to hold you to a higher standard of accountability and understanding of research and information that will be expected from you in the real world, thus they will expect you to find answers from more reliable resources. Showing that you can evaluate information and choose the most reliable information to utilize is one of the many points of the work you do in college. You'll need these same skills of information evaluation as you move forward in your future career. All of us use these skills daily in some way, whether we realize we're doing it or not. You don't have to take our word for it though, even Wikipedia itself does not recommend citing it for academic research.
All those points considered, to say that you should never use Wikipedia for research is really too hasty and not too smart. It is possible for Wikipedia to inform your research in many useful ways. Here we'll run through some of the tricks for getting the most out of Wikipedia quickly.
One of the greatest uses of Wikipedia for your academic research is using it to get a quick overview of your subject. It is an encyclopedia after all. This is particularly useful if you are researching a subject with which you are not familiar. It may be less useful if you are researching within your discipline, as it may be too general for the research you are doing within your own major. In other words, your personal expertise may have surpassed what Wikipedia can offer. However, starting with Wikipedia is a great option for many students who feel comfortable with its encyclopedia format and like to have that quick burst of information before starting in on a very specific paper topic.
Wikipedia is a great resource to mine for keywords to use in your research. Pay attention to words in headings, in bold, or marked as hyperlinks. Pay attention as you read through the article and take note of terminology specific to the subject, or even just words that get used or repeated often. This can give you a good idea of what terms and words may be good for creating your own search term list for further research. It can also give you an idea of what language is most commonly used to talk about the subject, giving you something to draw upon for your own academic work.
In the image on the left here, you'll see an example of one place to look for this kind of information. Check the box to the right of the screen on each article. This contains some fast facts that may be useful to you. For instance, if we're looking up California's state fossil, the Smilodon (or saber-toothed cat), we can see some quick information in that box. In this entry it's giving us some synonyms, species names, and the whole scientific classification, all of which may be useful to use as keywords later.
As you can see displayed in the image to the right, articles on Wikipedia will have a table of contents, just called "Contents," that lists the subject headings for that particular article. Taking a moment to scan this contents box may save you some time, particularly if you're reading a very long Wikipedia entry (our Smilodon entry is rather modest). You can get an idea of what parts of the entry will be most relevant to you, and use the linked headings to move directly to that section of the article.
Looking at the References and Bibliography sections has two main advantages. First of all, it lets you check to see whether or not the resource the Wikipedia entry is using is reliable. Second, if it's reliable and appropriate for an academic paper, you may be able to use that resource for your own work (NOT the Wikipedia article itself, the original resource that Wikipedia is pulling from).
Also, take note of the tiny numbers that appear within the text of your Wikipedia article. These act as footnotes, citations, essentially, of the article. Hovering over one of these numbers will display the full reference entry. Clicking on the numbers will jump you down to that resource in the References list.
The References and Bibliography sections of our Smilodon entry (see next two images below) are fairly large. Formatted just as you will format your own reference pages, these citations include all the information we need to find these resources out in the world, including links to any that are available online.
In the image below, we can check on the size comparison noted in our Smilodon entry by hovering over the 22 to view the citation from right there, or we can click on the number and it will jump us to the citation within the References page below (you can see number 22 in the screenshot image of the References section above).
One of the convenient features of Wikipedia is that they include links to other Wikipedia articles within the text of each article. Many Wikipedia articles also contain a "See Also" section towards the end of the entry, similar to traditional print encyclopedias. We can thank the overwhelming technology behind the Internet for this useful feature. These hyperlinks allow us to move with ease through the Wikipedia universe, gathering and defining terms we may not initially understand. However, like many websites Wikipedia users can fall prey to the rabbit hole that is all of those lovely links to other articles in Wikipedia. Find a way to keep focused when using Wikipedia so you don't get caught up in them. As with many moments in your research, having a strategy relating to these hyperlinks will save you time and sanity in the end.
For instance, in our Smilodon entry we may find the reference in the image above to spotted hyenas interesting. When we click on it, it takes us to the following entry for the Spotted hyena that we see in the image below. You can see how this would get distracting very quickly.
Our Smilodon article didn't have any "See also" options, but our Spotted hyena entry has the two offerings pictured below, which lead us to other pages on Wikipedia.
Many Wikipedia articles contain all sorts of extra suggested resources on the topics they cover. Though you'll need to evaluate these other resources individually, some of these may lead you to more useful, reliable information. Typically, these extra resources are found using heading such as "Further Reading" or "External Links."
Again, our Smilodon didn't deliver on this one, but the Spotted hyenas definitely did. In the image below you can see that this Wikipedia entry has several further references listed in these sections.
Remember that you can always ask your professor to tell you what the best way to use Wikipedia may be in your particular discipline.