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Wikipedia: Proceed with caution

October 29th, 2009

Every semester during syllabus week, many professors stress to their students not to cite Wikipedia as a source on any research paper.

As tempting as it may be to use this site as a reference because of its ease and wealth of information, these teachers might be right.

Wikipedia is a free, online encyclopedia that covers a wide variety of topics, but it allows anyone with Internet access to edit its pages.

The reality of this feature is that someone with a Ph.D. in biology could write an intellectual article on cell theory, and a 13-year old could go on later and “edit” that article, changing all the accurate information.

Thomas Pace, a professor of English at John Carroll University said, “Wikipedia does not specify who provided the information on their pages, so we as users do not know their credibility.”

Even Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, doesn’t believe students should be citing his creation.

In an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Wales said he has no sympathy for students who complain about Wikipedia getting them into trouble academically, because he thinks to himself, “For God sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia.”

If having Wikipedia’s founder telling students not to cite the page isn’t enough to influence people not to use it as a source, then maybe some of the top Wikipedia blunders will be more convincing.

An article on MSNBC presented the worst Wikipedia mistakes which included one stating that soccer star David Beckham was a Chinese goalkeeper in the 18th century.

Another slip-up said “The Tonight Show” host, Conan O’Brien, assaults sea turtles while canoeing.

Other Wikipedia errors included: a posting that singer Robbie Williams eats domestic pets in pubs for money and that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair worships Hitler.

However, these inaccuracies shouldn’t scare people away from using Wikipedia altogether.

There are some great ways to utilize this online encyclopedia for schoolwork without citing it in papers.

One way is to use it for background information.

Wales believes that if students are reading a novel that mentions the Battle of the Bulge for instance, they can use Wikipedia to get a quick, basic overview of that particular event to understand the context.

Pace agreed. He said, “Wikipedia can provide a launch pad for student research as long as the researcher is aware that some of the material may or may not be accurate.”

Another great way to utilize Wikipedia is to use the external links and references that are attached to the bottom of every article.

This can be a helpful way to find academic sources or other sites that may be able to assist students in their studies.

Senior, Stephanie Strano, said, “I use the external links on Wikipedia, because I know that my teachers will allow me to cite them and they really help me get started on my research.”

Wikipedia can be a great tool to help students figure out what combinations of keywords can get the best results in search engines.

By giving people a basic overview of a topic, they are introduced to different words and word combinations that they might not have thought of searching for before going to the site. The idea is to use Wikipedia to focus research and use it as a foundational base to begin research.

Administrators of Wikipedia are currently working on producing a fact sheet that professors could give to students explaining what Wikipedia is, and how to use it.