How to use Wikipedia and other online sources for research

In every syllabus, I tell students to use “quality sources” in their research papers. But that only raises the question of what qualifies as a “quality source.” One student wanted to know if he could cite the Bible as one of his sources. After all, you can’t get much more quality than that! Another took things a step further and asked if individual books of the Bible counted as different sources. Talk about a quick way to pad your bibliography.

But the question everyone wants to ask: what about Wikipedia?

Before I say any more, let’s be clear about one thing: I like Wikipedia. When I want to learn about something new, Wikipedia is usually my first stop. It’s a great place to surf for entry-level information on almost any topic.

I often hear people argue that you shouldn’t use Wikipedia because it can be inaccurate. So what? All sources are inaccurate at times. We’re humans. Inaccuracy comes with the territory. Wikipedia’s fallibility just means that you should use it wisely–like any other source. And this means using it for what it’s good at:

  • brief overviews of complex subjects
  • links to related topics
  • links to other (possibly good) sources
  • ideas for further research
For these reasons alone, Wikipedia is worth using. It’s a great way to orient yourself to a new subject and related areas.

Nonetheless, here’s an important rule to follow: Don’t cite Wikipedia as an authoritative source in your research paper. Ever.

But why? If inaccuracy isn’t the problem, what is? There are two good reasons you shouldn’t cite Wikipedia, and they matter for how you use other online sources as well.

1. Author: Unlike most information sources, there’s no easy way to know who authored Wikipedia content. It could be someone with a Ph.D. in the relevant field or your 13-year-old neighbor. And, if you’re citing this data to support the argument of your research paper, that’s a problem. Your reader has no way of knowing whether you’re offering a legitimate source to back up your argument. (Why should I care what your 13-year-old neighbor thinks?) And again, this isn’t because Wikipedia is inaccurate. The best scholars in the field can still be wrong. But citing a known and recognized authority strengthens your argument far more than the unknown authors of a Wikipedia article.

2. Stability: One of Wikipedia’s great strengths is that people are constantly updating, correcting, and revising its content. This open-source approach to information is a great way to produce a large body of information about an amazingly diverse range of topics. But the resulting fluidity is also a problem for the researcher. If you cite Wikipedia in your paper, you have no way of knowing whether it will still be there for your reader when the time comes. You can cite the date that you accessed the information, but that doesn’t really help your reader. Should I just take your word for it that it really was there? That’s not terribly helpful.

As an example of a web site that tries to address both of these problems and offer online content that is much more useful to the researcher, check out the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Unlike many internet sources, the Stanford Encyclopedia has done two things that makes it an outstanding research source: (1) every article is written by a recognized authority in the relevant field; and (2) every article is archived so you can be sure the information you’re citing will still be around even if the article is later revised.

But, even if you’re working with a web site that is not as well designed as the Stanford Encyclopedia, you can still do a few things to strengthen your internet research.

1. Check the Author: Before you do anything, find out who wrote the content and whether they’re credible. That will tell you whether the content is something you might be able to use authoritatively, or if it’s just interesting background information.

2. Validate the Data: What do you do if you see something in a source like Wikipedia (interesting, but not authoritative) that you’d like to use in your paper? You need to validate it. In other words, you need to see if you can find that same information in a more authoritative source. If so, cite the authoritative source and you’re good to go. If not, don’t use it. It’s that simple.

3. Record the date: This one’s obvious. Your reader needs to know the date of any information you’re using to support your argument.

4. Archive the content: This is the one many students neglect. Remember, the internet is fluid. So I strongly recommend saving the web page on your own computer if you’ll be using it as a source in your paper. You’ll still cite the original source, but you’ll have static content to refer back to if the web source ever changes.

The bottom line: know what kind of web site you’re using and use it accordingly. Wikipedia doesn’t cause bad research. Bad researchers do.

Comments

comments

9 Responses to “How to use Wikipedia and other online sources for research”

  1. Craig Beard January 4, 2012 at 7:43 am #

    As a librarian, I like knowing that a professor actually knows — and tells his students — how students should use online resources. We occasionally talk to students who won’t use legitimate journals, that just happen to be available to our folks online, because their professor issued a blanket prohibition to “online sources” (or “Internet sources” or some such phrase) and didn’t say more than that. Thanks!

    • Marc Cortez January 4, 2012 at 8:14 am #

      Talk about unintended consequences! But I think you’re right that professors often warn against online sources without proper nuance. That’s not terribly helpful in a world that is increasingly digital.

  2. Josh January 5, 2012 at 10:38 pm #

    I have become interested somewhat in the possibility of citing qualified blogs. For instance, I once asked whether I could cite a statement by Ben Witherington from his blog. Simple answer was no. So I found the same statement published about a year after in one of his books. He was using his blog to help flesh out his thoughts in the public domain (and it seems a number of good theologians now do)

    Any thoughts as to this possibility?

    • Marc Cortez January 6, 2012 at 6:49 am #

      I’m actually thinking about writing on this next. But the short answer is that I think you can definitely do this. People have cited “private correspondence” in academic writings for a long time. So if you can cite an email that I send you privately, why wouldn’t you be able to cite an argument that I’ve made publicly on a blog? That would seem to be an even stronger source for your research. I do think you should go the extra mile and see if you can find the same argument/idea in print form, but only because that tends to pack a little extra punch for your readers. If you can only find it on a blog, though, I wouldn’t have a problem with that in a research paper.

      • JOSH January 7, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

        Cool, that was what I was thinking. I always thought the source quality is primarily about the credibility of the actual source (qualified opinion) rather than medium of communication. (I might just press this sometime as it seems to me that there is alot of qualified credible source material in blogs now)

  3. Nathan Stitt January 12, 2012 at 8:58 am #

    Marc,

    May I have permission to print this post and use it as a reference handout for my AP students please? Thanks,

    Nathan

  4. Marc Cortez January 12, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

    No problem. Enjoy.

  5. Pat Mächler September 30, 2012 at 4:44 am #

    Concerning archiving: I usually suggest to use webcitation.org which is backed by a number of journals (even though I’m an advocate for Open Access and thus are not such a fan of most journals).

Leave a Reply:

Gravatar Image