I once went to a meeting where a librarian angrily shook her fist and demanded that students stop using Wikipedia. She even admitted to intentionally posting false information on the site as proof that it was unreliable. When I left the meeting, I wondered if I was somehow letting my students down by using Wikipedia in my personal and professional lives. I realized that no, I was not a bad person for using Wikipedia. Like my addiction to chocolate, it was okay for me to wiki a concept or idea when I wanted more information, as long as I did so in moderation.
I’m sure someone is reading this and thinking that I am encouraging students to plagiarize from Wikipedia. But let me be clear, moderation is key, especially when talking about Wikipedia.
Now that I work as a Writing Fellow, I meet with a lot of students who tell me about their wiking. They come close to me, lower their voice just a bit, and admit to having “glanced” at Wikipedia as they wrote their paper or created their web documentary.
You know what, there is nothing wrong with that. Wikipedia is great. When I was younger, I had to rush to libraries all over Manhattan to check out books, only to find that they were not relevant to what I was researching. I did not have the luxury of wiking information when I wanted a quick primer on a subject.
And that is what you get from wiking, a primer on a subject. The best part of reading about a topic on Wikipedia is that it includes links to the sources you should read on a topic. This is where the real benefit of Wikipedia becomes evident, when it leads you to great sources.
I randomly decided to search for the Stanford prison experiment on Wikipedia, and ended up being led to the official website for the experiment. The page for this subject contains a lot more information than the textbook I used to assign to my Intro to Sociology classes.
A couple years ago, Wikipedia came in handy when a student referenced Brazil’s large Japanese community in their final paper proposal. I only vaguely knew what they were referring to, so I checked it out on Wikipedia. I did not know that Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan until I read about it on Wikipedia.
But Wikipedia is not perfect. This is an important lesson that all researchers need to keep in mind when using Wikipedia. Both the Stanford prison experiment and Japanese-Brazilian pages contain the warning “needs additional citations for verification”. This is one reason why it is necessary to research beyond Wikipedia, because the material may need further verification.
Another problem that can occur when using Wikipedia is that sometimes it is hard to follow the links on a page, making it almost useless as a route to other great sources. Most of the references for the Japanese-Brazilian page are in Japanese. Obviously that does not make it an invalid wiki entry, but it does mean it will be hard for me to read the sources the wiki page author used since the only word I know in Japanese is konnichiwa.
Some students and professors have expressed their concern over whether or not using Wikipedia leads to plagiarism. Honestly, it can. But I figure that the student who would cut and paste from Wikipedia would still plagiarize if they weren’t using Wikipedia. They could just as easily cut and paste content from a different web page.
For the students out there who are afraid that using Wikipedia to find sources is a form of plagiarism, don’t worry. Using one source to lead you to other sources is actually a sign of strong research skills. It is a common practice amongst academics because it can help lead a researcher to sources they would never have found on their own. It is only a form of plagiarism if you reference material without giving credit to the author. Reading the same material as a wiki author is not plagiarism. Using a quote that you did not read directly, without citing where you read it, is a form of plagiarism.
I should also warn that using Wikipedia, like doing any internet research, can lead to incredible time wasting. Reading about Japanese-Brazilians led me to a page about Asian Latin Americans, which then led to the Koreatown page, then the Koreatown, Los Angeles page, and eventually brought me to the Capitol Records page. Had I been doing a project on Japanese-Brazilians, I would be way off track.
So remember, feel free to start at Wikipedia when you do your research. But just remember that your work does not end at Wikipedia.org.
Great post, Caroline! I too an am enthusiastic Wikipedia user, and as a member of the library faculty I do recommend it to students in exactly the way you outline: a great place to start, to find background information and maybe a few links to other references. One thing I’ve started pointing out recently is that at least Wikipedia *has* citations and references, however flawed they may sometimes be, in contrast to “content farms” like About.com and Ehow.com which present thousands of articles on a huge range of topics with no citations whatsoever.
Loved your post! And I vote yes, wiki! One thing that I find amazing is how current the information is (sometimes too current to even verify) and how quickly some things get ironed out.