Adam Coomer asks on The Guardian, “Should university students use Wikipedia?“
No, if you want to cite directly from it or get all your sources from the article’s references and nowhere else.
Yes, if you want a starting point or if you want to familiarise yourself with general concepts.
Of course, there is a proviso: always expect mistakes, controversy, and vandalism. Just in case.
The subject matter may look like a boring source to add jokes, false information, and opinion, but it happens all over the place. Take everything with a pinch of salt.
By the time you’re at the stage of writing essays and completing coursework, Wikipedia shouldn’t be top of your list. But it’s a great place to start when you’re researching and gathering notes.
Here are three major reasons Wikipedia will work for you:
- Off to a Great Start – A wiki entry isn’t good enough for gathering references, because it only skirts the surface. Even an in-depth article won’t cover everything to the extent you’re expected to dive into. You are expected to look at academic articles and books from many sources. But Wikipedia is great to use at the beginning. Get stuck in when you start out, not when you finish up.
- Convenience – A quick look online is easier than taking out the textbooks. You may even want a simple outline of a topic. Enter Simple Wikipedia. Brief explanations when even the original Wikipedia article is too much hassle. A great way to remind you of the core information.
- Jumping Off Point – Don’t think of the Wiki footnotes as a set of articles to add to your own references. Go further and read the references within those referenced articles. Also, find key words that the Wikipedia piece makes a big deal of and look them up in recent scholarly articles. That way, you get the important older papers, plus a look at more up to date stuff. And all off the back of a Wikipedia page.
Talking of jumping off points, there are others close to home. Use your textbooks in the same way. Yes, Wikipedia is convenient, but you probably have your textbooks close to hand much of the time. You don’t have to do much to get the treasure. Grab the books, find the topic you’re researching, and look at the references given in the book (usually at the end of the chapter, or at the back of the book). Voila! More books and academic papers for you to dig out to study and reference. And not the same ones that everyone else looking at Wikipedia will dish out either. Win!
The point of all this is that Wikipedia has a place. As the Guardian piece states, “the default response of academics to simply advise against using the site is unlikely to have much effect”. After all, why not use the site?
I say go ahead and use it. But use it wisely. The key is to use Wikipedia to your advantage and not merely for shortcuts. Make the site part of your wider scholarly plan and there shouldn’t be a problem. It’s when you rely on it as your major go-to that you’ll end up with issues.
Wikipedia is your friend, even at uni, so long as you treat it right. How much do you use it?