How many of you use Wikipedia? This is a question I pose when doing library instruction with new college students. At first, only a few hesitant hands go up, but then after students see me raise my hand, a few more will inevitably go up. Well, if the teacher admits to it, it must be OK!
Yes, it is OK and yes, anyone who surfs the net will, without a doubt, use Wikipedia. A study in Nature magazine found that ”Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of accuracy of its science entries” (Giles, 2005, p. 900). In fact, a surprising number of errors were found to occur in Encyclopedia Britannica. One of the reasons is that Wikipedia can be updated instantly with new scientific data, while the Britannica cannot. And of course the best part of Wikipedia is that it is free and one of the first hits when you do any Internet search.
Does this mean that you should use Wikipedia as a source in your next research paper? No, absolutely not. But neither would I recommend a college level paper citing a general encyclopedia.
So how should you use it? I like to tell students that Wikipedia is a good place to start, but not where you want to end up!
Here is what the Daring Librarian recommends:
- “Use it as background information.” I often use Wikipedia when I am watching a television program that refers to something I want to know more about. For example, I wanted to know more about the Hatfields and McCoys as I was watching the series on the History channel. I googled it and read more about the two families on Wikipedia.
- “Use it for technology terms.” This is a great place to find definitions of hashtags and QR codes. Library databases are often not very good at this.
- “Use it for current pop cultural literacy.” Where else would you get the latest scoop on the next superhero movie that’s coming out next week?
- “Use it for the Keywords.” When searching Google or the library databases, it is sometimes hard to come up with the right words to find the information you need, reading Wikipedia can provide you with many more ideas.
- “Use it for the REFERENCES at the bottom of the page!” Many of Wikipedia’s references are links to other scholarly articles. Check these out and of course be sure to evaluate their reliability.
So don’t be afraid to admit that you use Wikipedia. Just be sure to use it wisely and with a discerning eye, as you should any other resource. After all, as the Daring Librarian says, “Wikipedia is not a dirty word” (Jones, 2010).
Giles, J. (2005). Internet encyclopedias go head to head. Nature 438(7070), 900-901. DOI:
Jones, G. A. (2010, November 6). The daring librarian: Wikipedia is not wicked. Retrieved from