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Wikipedia for Course Research: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

How often do you look to Wikipedia for some quick facts? Probably pretty often given the stats: the site gets an average of 269 million page views every single day and is the fifth most visited website in the world. But while Wikipedia might be great for ending debates over which U.S. city has the largest population or what the song “Yankee Doodle” is actually about, Wikipedia has largely been banned as a source of research for academic papers.

How can such a popular and prolific site be so bad to use for research? Is Wikipedia always off limits? The answer is complicated, but makes a lot of sense. Read on to learn more about where Wikipedia can fit in to your academic career and why your professors aren’t trying to make your life more difficult by discouraging you from using it.

Why Your Instructors Don’t Want You Using Wikipedia

One of the most appealing things about Wikipedia is its convenience. When you’re taking online courses, you probably don’t want to have to head out to the library, on campus or otherwise, to do the bulk of your research–especially if you’re balancing class and full-time work. But your instructors aren’t trying to inconvenience you by asking you to not use Wikipedia as a source. In fact, they’re trying to do you a favor by teaching you important college-level research skills. The fact is, Wikipedia just doesn’t hold up as a strong source of information for academic papers. Why?

One of the biggest criticisms of Wikipedia has to do with accuracy. Anyone can edit Wikipedia and make changes to the entries on the site, even those with limited knowledge or those who are purposely posting inaccurate information. But while that’s true and a very valid concern, the site is generally pretty accurate on most subjects, perhaps just as much so as any other encyclopedia. And therein lies the real, more important issue with using Wikipedia as a source for a college-level paper: it’s an encyclopedia.

Source material for research is divided up into several different types: primary, secondary, and tertiary. What does that mean?

  • Primary: Primary sources are direct accounts of events or original documentation. Examples include diaries, interviews, letters, speeches, works of art, photographs, or works of literature.
  • Secondary: Secondary sources contains commentary, interpretation or discussion about a primary source. This includes biographies, dissertations, abstracts, journal articles, and monographs.
  • Tertiary: A tertiary source contains a summary or abbreviated version of materials, usually with references to the original primary or secondary sources, but without much original content. Examples of this kind of resource include encyclopedia, almanacs, and dictionaries.

When you’re writing a paper for a college level course, you should only be citing material that comes from secondary or primary sources. As an encyclopedia, Wikipedia isn’t either, instead being a tertiary source. So, it isn’t necessarily Wikipedia that your instructors are against, it’s anything falling under that tertiary umbrella. Similarly, Encyclopedia Britannica isn’t an acceptable source for college writing, even if it was in your previous K-12 education experience.

College level courses are designed to ask you to dig deeper in your research and to evaluate and distill primary and secondary sources on your own, without a tertiary source in the middle. So by not allowing Wikipedia as a source, your instructors are helping you to learn a very valuable skill that you can use to get your bachelor’s, master’s or beyond, should you choose to go that route, or in working in a wide range of fields that rely on these kinds of sources.

Is it Ever OK to Use Wikipedia for Research?

So is Wikipedia strictly off limits, then? Not necessarily. Wikipedia can be a great starting point for a research project. It offers a lot of really basic information that can help you develop a thesis or give you some more background on things like time periods, dates, and related topics.

Even better, Wikipedia cites its sources. Sometimes, these sources can be really helpful and might actually be something you could use for a paper. Even better than that, THOSE sources will likely have a bibliography of their own and can start a whole chain reaction of referring great source after great source, none of which will be Wikipedia itself.

So yes, you can use Wikipedia, but it’s best just to dabble and use the site as a place to start researching, not to do the bulk of your investigations.

Where SHOULD You Go for Research Help as an Online Student?

Part of the appeal of studying online is that you can do most or all of your work from the comfort of your own home. And this is still true for a lot of your research. Really.

Even if you can’t make it to campus to take advantage of the physical resources by the College’s library, there are still LOADS of digital resources you can use.

For example, the library offers access to dozens of online databases of journal articles, e-books, newspapers, videos, images, and statistics. There are also research guides for most majors, allowing you to easily pinpoint the kind of information that would be pertinent to your course material. If you still can’t find what you need, you can also take advantage of the Ask a Librarian resource, which will allow you to get direct answers to your research questions by phone, email or through chat.

And outside of our library? You can use sites like Google Scholar, Google Books, Science.gov, BASE, ERIC or any other number of academic search sites that will point you towards high-quality, bibliography-worthy sources you can be proud to include in your paper.

The overall verdict? While it’s OK if Wikipedia is your first stop when you’re trying to figure out what to write your research paper about, it certainly shouldn’t be your last. Take advantage of the vast array of more academic resources offered to students online—who knows, you might just end up writing the best research paper of your life as a result.