Wikipedia: What’s the Big Deal?

You’re in college now, and no doubt you’ve already heard about the murky trap that is Wikipedia. Many of your professors discourage its use in academic research and some might outright ban it as a resource. It may seem like a pretty black and white thing. Just don’t use Wikipedia. But it really isn’t that easy. But then again, this is college, and if it were easy it wouldn’t mean as much when you finally have that piece of paper at the end that calls you a graduate.

I’m a librarian and I pride myself on being able to find answers to anything and do so with the best resources. But I use Wikipedia all the time. I love it; I really can’t say enough good things about it. But, it is a tool, not an authoritative resource, and should be used as such. This is where the complexity begins.

Information resources are tools used to find knowledge. And just as you use a hammer for nails and a screwdriver for screws, different information resources are used in different situations for different purposes. There is no one size fits all tool and I believe that is where the real trouble is with Wikipedia. It has this mystique of having all the answers. It is comprehensive, current, and accessible. Nearly every web search brings up a Wikipedia article on the first page. In many cases, the information found on those pages seems really good, often it is.

But, and here’s the kicker, how do you know for sure? Well, if you don’t have firsthand knowledge of the topic you really don’t. This is the case for anything you read, including blogs, newspaper articles, books, and even scholarly articles. Everything should be read with a critical mind. Wikipedia should be more so than others, and this is why.

A wiki is designed to allow for collaborative work between a specific group of people. Wikipedia was developed so “anyone with Internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles” (Wikipedia-About, n.d.). This has allowed for it to grow exponentially with contributors from all over the world and from vastly different backgrounds. Errors can be corrected immediately. Topics that otherwise would not receive coverage do and the collective cooperation between people allows for a depth of input and expertise that is often quite good.

But that doesn’t mean that the one piece of information you have found for your research is accurate. This is why, as a college student, you should be concerned. You need that one piece of information to be correct. Wikipedia does have a review process, but it happens after publication—after the information is already out there—and because it is all done by volunteers,  and Wikipedia is so very big, you never know if your piece has been checked.

This essentially means you need to verify any information you get from Wikipedia against reputable, primary, good secondary, and/or scholarly sources. This takes work and requires digging deeper into the resources you have available, many of which you can find in the GCU library. This extra verification isn’t limited to just Wikipedia however, the same goes for blogs, social networks, newspapers, magazines, and web pages.

With all this extra work, why do I use Wikipedia? Well, that brings us back to the tool concept. There are many times when I do not have a good understanding of a topic. Finding keywords to search for good resources can be a challenge, and that is where Wikipedia comes in. I will pull words and concepts and enter them into my search engines, book catalogs, and article databases. I will also look at the reference found at the bottom of the page to see where the contributors are getting their facts. Wikipedia is an excellent tool for leading you to more information. It is a step along the way, and it is extremely valuable.

Just don’t use it as your definitive source.  You can always find something better, more conclusive, and more authoritative. And if you can’t seem to find what you need? Well, just give us a call or send us an email. Helping you find good information resources is what your GCU Librarians are here to do.

Written by: Heather Lausten, GCU Librarian

Additional resources:

Jaschick, S. (2007) News: A Stand Against Wikipedia. Inside Higher Ed.

Johnson, C. A. (2006). The Good And the Bad of Wikipedia: The Online Encyclopedia Has Revolutionized Information Sharing, But There Are Downsides. CBS News, New York.;contentBody

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