Wikipedia: Not a Credible Source, but a Jumping Off Point for Research



WIKIPEDIA…some people love it, many educators hate it. As an academic librarian, I would have to say that my feelings tend to sway between love and hate. Here is why. Wikipedia is highly used by students of all ages. It’s popularity ranking in search engines is astronomical, which is why a Wikipedia listing is often one of the first results retrieved using a search engine. Students find a good snapshot of information on a particular topic when searching Wikipedia, just as they would when using a traditional print encyclopedia. Because of this, it serves as a great jumping off point for research. Which is why I sometimes love it. Yet, the information found on Wikipedia has not been verified for reliability. Though many students often cite from it anyway, and often use it as a primary source. Which is why I also hate it.


Just as encyclopedias are considered tertiary sources (as opposed to primary or secondary), so is Wikipedia. Wikipedia itself freely admits HERE that it is not considered a credible or authoritative source and that it should be used as a tertiary source. Tertiary sources  “consist of information which is a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources” (source) and include: dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, bibliographies, manuals, textbooks, and more. See my post on Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources in order to learn more about the distinction between these sources of information.


It is a known fact that anyone, at any time can add and edit information in almost any article on Wikipedia. While the concept of having a community application where anyone can contribute and share information is a great idea, it is Wikipedia’s greatest downfall from an academic standpoint. This is why many educators prohibit students from citing articles on Wikipedia. There is no guarantee that the information that is credible. Wikipedia admits that not everything on their website is “accurate, comprehensive, or unbiased” (source).  Wikipedia does not employ a process of peer review, as all academic journals do with their articles prior to publication. If you’re going to use Wikipedia, then use it to gain a foundation of basic information about your topic. Using that information, come up with a list of specific keywords or subject terms that you can use in online research databases (see below for more information).


As a librarian, I often tell students to use Wikipedia and search engines such as Google strictly as jumping off points for research. That’s ok! Just remember that you need to dig deeper. If you find a source on the internet (website, blog, etc.) be sure to evaluate the source before using the information. Does the author have verifiable credentials? Can you see that he/she is an expert in the field they are discussing on the website? Do you see that they have cited from other authoritative sources in their research? If so, then it is probably safe to use it as a source.


I recommend using scholarly journals and online research databases (EBSCOhost, ProQuest, Springer, and many more) to guarantee that you’re finding reliable, scholarly information on your research topic. The articles within scholarly journals have underdone a process of peer review in which the author’s peers (other experts in the field) have reviewed the information for accuracy before the article can be published. Research databases contain many scholarly journals and other sources. These databases allow you to select a limiter that will search only within scholarly/peer-reviewed sources. Databases may seem daunting to use at first, but it’s simply a matter of trial and error. Use specific keywords and subject terms and make the various features of the databases work for you, rather than against you. Check out this short 5 minute video I created on Quick Tips & Shortcuts for Database Searching.


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