How To Use Wikipedia for Research

Well, though teachers and professors frown upon it, many learners will refer to Wikipedia when conducting research.  And it can be a good place to start, but still it is not a source to cite.  Why?  Like encyclopedias and other reference books, Wikipedia provides a good overview of many subjects.  However, anyone can edit the articles.  As such, some may contain fake information, others may be incomplete, and many could contain bias (often the biased ones are identified by a warning banner, but not all are; just the ones that have been identified).  Plus, the depth and the length of the articles vary widely.  I’ve seen them as short as two sentences and as long as a book!  Articles that gain more interest, especially those related to pop culture, tend to be longer and more balanced.  Thus, let’s look at the best ways to use Wikipedia.

Also, know that the following tips have been used to great success by my colleagues and I when I served as a graduate reference assistant.  I still use them sometimes myself and have shown them to the middle and high school students when I have substitute taught, both in the library and the classroom.

As a Starting Point

Wikipedia Home Page Screenshot

Wikipedia Home Page Screenshot

Like I mentioned above, Wikipedia provides overviews on many subjects.  This is keeping with the theme of it being an encyclopedia.  Thus, like with print encyclopedias and reference books, Wikipeida can be a good place to start.  When one knows little of nothing on a subject, an individual can refer to Wikipedia and find out.  However, keep in mind the considerations I mentioned earlier.

The best ways to use it as a starting point are to gain an overview on the topic.  As all research requires a focus, knowing the overview can help narrow the topic to a specific area of coverage for more in-depth research.  For example, say you are researching World War II and are reading the overview article.  Form there, you may determine you wish to focus on the resistance movements over a particular battle or person.  Next, one can begin to look at more academic sources.  The other great way to use Wikipedia as a starting point is to look at the list of references and find those sources to utilize.  These lists often include books, websites, and articles.  From there, one can opt to read the entire chosen source or repeat the aforementioned process of using it as a starting point (see “For Data Mining” below).  It just depends on the source and/or situation.

For Data Mining

In the beginning, Wikipedia did not require citations.  That has changed as it has evolved and citations have been required for the last half-dozen years or so.  This has led to the inclusion of both references and citations, just like in a research paper.  And like when reading an article, books, or another researcher’s paper, you can follow the citations and see where they might lead.  I’ve often been lead to more interesting articles and/or books with even more great citations!

Unlike with print media, you do not often have to worry about leaving the computer for a print resource.  Books are often linked out to WorldCat, Amazon.com, or barnesandnoble.com.  Then all you have to do is see about ordering it or requesting via your library’s catalog or inter-library loan service.  Online media, freely available or some variation of pay wall (including databases), is directly linked to.  If it is freely available, one can go straight to it.  If it is behind a pay wall, there are two options.  First, if the article doesn’t link to a database your school or library has, try going to the database(s) and try searching for the article directly.  Your institution may not offer a link resolver that “opens” the link and a direct search will solve the problem.  Or you might search and find the article in a different database (subscriptions vary by institution).  Second, there is always the pay-by-the-article method, but it is costly (often $20+ an article).

In the same idea as mining the references and citations, one can also mine the links to other Wikipedia articles.  Often, this can also serve as a good way to narrow topics and to find more specific resources by following the same steps mentioned above within a new article.  You never know what could be linked to an article about a person or place involved that didn’t make it into the first article examined.  And this step can be repeated as needed by looking at other linked articles until a plan of action is formed and more in-depth resources have been identified.

For Images

Lastly, most images on Wikipedia are offered under a Creative Commons license or are in the public domain.  This makes it a great place to find images on a topic.  When in an article and you see an image you may want to use for a presentation or in the paper, click on it.  On the page that opens, the image fill first appear in a large size.  If you scroll down, you will see the metadata and in that it will tell about the image’s license.  Unless it is copyrighted, it can be used as long as it is cited properly according to what is found in the metadata about its origin.  For example, the photographer and/or owning institution and image title are mentioned and should be cited along with the fact it was found in Wikimedia Commons.  For more about image searching, take a look at an earlier post on the topic.

Final Thoughts

If you are a librarian and want learn more about using Wikipedia in information literacy instruction, please refer to Cate Calhoun’s “Using Wikipedia in Information Literacy Instruction:  Tips for Developing Research Skills” in ACRL News from January, 2014.  It also discusses Wikipedia as a place to start research and for bibliographic mining (essentially the same as data mining).  She also discusses how to use Wikipedia to generate keyword ideas.*  This article gave me the idea to touch on this topic for a post (targeted at all audiences instead of just academic librarians), however long it took me to post!  I had written it nearly a year back but other topics/reviews were more pressing or timely.

From the comment below:  There is a guide Wikipedia wrote for university librarians that address some of what I mentioned.  It is called “The Wikipedia Library/University libraries.”  Consider taking a look. (added 2/10/15).

Do you have any questions about using Wikipedia for researching?  Do you know of any other research ethical ways it can be used? Or perhaps do you wish to share a way you have used Wikipedia or another Wiki to assist in research? Or how this type of searching led to a discovery?

*Keyword ideas are something I worked into an earlier post but am now considering a dedicated post to.  There are quite a few placed to check!

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