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Wikipedia:Researching with Wikipedia

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
For a quick and simple guide to using Wikipedia in Research, see WP:Research help.

Wikipedia can be a great tool for learning and researching information. However, as with all reference works, not everything in Wikipedia is accurate, comprehensive, or unbiased. Many of the general rules of thumb for conducting research apply to Wikipedia, including:

  • Always be wary of any one single source (in any medium — web, print, television or radio), or of multiple works that derive from a single source.
  • Where articles have references to external sources (whether online or not) read the references and check whether they really do support what the article says.
  • In most academic institutions Wikipedia, like most encyclopedias and other tertiary sources, is unacceptable as a source for facts in a research paper. Some encyclopedias such as Encyclopædia Britannica have notable authors working for them and may be cited as a secondary source in some cases; institutional policies will vary. For example, Cornell University's online guide to APA style uses citations from Britannica in some of its examples.

However, because of Wikipedia's unique nature, there are also some rules for conducting research that are special to Wikipedia, and some general rules that do not apply to Wikipedia.

Background knowledge for researchers about Wikipedia

Potential researchers and other serious users are strongly encouraged to read About Wikipedia for a summary overview and understanding of Wikipedia.

A slightly longer "nutshell" summary

  • For the most part, Wikipedia has similar strengths and weaknesses to any other encyclopedia.
  • Major additional strengths:
    • Keeps up to date well.
    • You can ask questions.
    • The history of an article and the process around how it was written are transparent.
  • Major additional weaknesses:
    • Articles vary wildly in quality and comprehensiveness.
    • At any given moment, an article may be in a vandalized state (rare, but not negligible).
    • Biases are unpredictable.

Overview of Wikipedia

In a wiki, articles are never "finished". They are continually edited and (usually) improved over time. In general this results in an upward trend of quality and a growing consensus over a fair and balanced representation of information.

Users should be aware that not all articles are of encyclopedic quality from the start. Indeed, many articles start out by giving one—perhaps not particularly evenhanded—view of the subject, and it is after a long process of discussion, debate, and argument that they gradually take on a consensus form. Others may become caught up in a heavily unbalanced viewpoint and can take some time—months perhaps—to regain a better-balanced consensus.

In part, this is because Wikipedia operates mainly on an informal process to resolve such issues. When editors cannot agree on content and approach, it is likely to take a bit of time before more experienced editors enter the picture. Even then, on inherently controversial topics, those more experienced editors may have their own axes to grind.

The ideal Wikipedia article is balanced, neutral, and encyclopedic, containing notable verifiable knowledge. Over time, an increasing number of articles have reached this standard. However, this process can take months or years, as each user contributes in turn. Some articles contain statements and claims that have not yet been fully cited. Others will later have entire new sections added. Some information now in the article may be considered by later contributors to be insufficiently founded and may be removed or expanded.

While the overall trend is generally upward, it is not uniformly upward. It is important to use Wikipedia carefully if it is intended to be used as a research source. Individual articles will, by the very nature of Wikipedia, vary in standard and maturity. This page is intended to help users and researchers do this effectively.

See also the article Reliability of Wikipedia, which summarizes third-party studies and assessments of Wikipedia.

Notable strengths of Wikipedia

Wikipedia has certain advantages over other reference works. Being web-based and having a very large number of active writers and editors, it provides fast coverage of many topics and provides hyperlinking, unavailable in traditional media.

Also, it often provides access to subject matter that is otherwise inaccessible in non-native languages. Since English Wikipedia editors come from all around the world, the relative lack of non-Western topics found in many Western publications is significantly less noticeable on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia often produces excellent articles about newsworthy events within days of their occurrence, such as the 2007 Wimbledon Championships, Lal Masjid siege, Kidnapping of Alan Johnston or the Benoit family tragedy. Similarly, it is one of the few sites on the web even attempting neutral, objective, encyclopedic coverage of popular culture, including television series or science fiction. It is also developing across-the-board global coverage of subject areas where for one reason or another existing sources are highly fragmented, including sports such as football/soccer and golf.

In comparison with most other web-based resources, Wikipedia's open approach tremendously increases the chances that any particular factual error or misleading statement will be promptly corrected. As Wikipedia is a collaborative, ongoing project, one may also ask questions of an article's authors. And thanks to its extensive use of hyperlinks and external links, Wikipedia can be an excellent guide to other related material, both on and off Wiki.

Notable weaknesses of Wikipedia

Wikipedia's most dramatic weaknesses are closely associated with its greatest strengths. Wikipedia's radical openness means that any given article may be, at any given moment, in a bad state: for example, it could be in the middle of a large edit or it could have been recently vandalized. While blatant vandalism is usually easily spotted and rapidly corrected, Wikipedia is certainly more subject to subtle vandalism and deliberate factual errors than a typical reference work.

Also, much as Wikipedia can rapidly produce articles on timely topics, it is also subject to remarkable oversights and omissions. There is no systematic process to make sure that "obviously important" topics are written about, so at any given time Wikipedia may be wildly out of balance in the relative attention paid to two different topics. For example, it is far more likely that the English-language Wikipedia will have at least some material about any given small U.S. village than about a given moderately-sized city in sub-Saharan Africa.

Another closely-related issue is that particular Wikipedia articles (or series of related articles) are liable to be incomplete in ways that would be unusual in a more tightly-controlled reference work. Sometimes this is obvious (as with a stub article) but other times it may be subtle: one side of a controversial issue may be excellently presented, while the other is barely mentioned; a portion of someone's life (not always the most notable portion) may be covered in detail, while other aspects may be presented only sketchily or not at all; coverage of a country's history may focus on the incidents that drew international attention, or may simply reflect the interest and expertise of some individual writer.

Another problem with a lot of content on Wikipedia is that many contributors do not cite their sources — something that makes it hard for the reader to judge the credibility of what is written. As of 2010, this problem has almost certainly been diminishing over the last several years, but it has not gone away.

Article quality in Wikipedia

Wikipedia is a wiki — a collaborative, open-source medium. Just as human knowledge evolves, so does our wiki coverage of it. Wiki articles are continually edited and improved over time, and in general this results in an upward trend of quality and a growing consensus over a fair balanced representation of information. It will tend to gain citations, new sections, and so forth. Dubious statements tend to be removed over time, but they may have a long life before they are removed.

However, few articles are of encyclopedic quality from the start. Indeed, many articles commence their lives as partisan drafts, and it may take a long process of discussion, debate, and argument to yield a consensus form. Other articles may, for a while, become caught up in a heavily unbalanced viewpoint, and it can take some time to restore a balanced consensus. Wikipedia has various processes to reach consensus about an article, including mechanisms to bring in broader participation to controversial articles.

The ideal Wikipedia article is neutral, referenced, and encyclopedic, containing notable, verifiable knowledge. An increasing number of articles reach this standard over time. Because this is an open wiki, there is no guarantee that a featured article retains its quality over time, and of course an older featured article does not magically improve as Wikipedia's standards generally rise. As of August 2006, 19% of one-time feature articles degraded, or failed to rise with the general standards, to the point of losing their featured status.

Keep in mind that an encyclopedia is intended to be a starting point for serious research, not an endpoint. Though many casual inquiries will be satisfied merely by referring to Wikipedia, you will learn more by accessing the print and online resources we reference. We encourage you to verify our content by using independent sources. We also invite you to contribute back by fixing any errors you may find and adding relevant material that will be of interest to future researchers.

Editorial administration, oversight and management

The Wikipedia community is largely self-organising, so that anyone may build a reputation as a competent editor and become involved in any role they may choose, subject to peer approval. Individuals often will choose to become involved in specialized tasks, such as reviewing articles at others' request, watching current edits for vandalism, or watching newly created articles for quality control purposes, or similar roles. Editors who find that editorial administrator responsibility would benefit their ability to help the Wikipedia community may ask their peers in the community for agreement to undertake such roles. This approval process helps to create and maintain a structure which enforces meritocracy and communal standards of editorship and conduct. Administrative and other similar roles are achieved only after a nomination process and a poll that shows at least 75-80% approval, a standard which tends to ensure a high level of experience, trust, and familiarity across a broad front of projects within Wikipedia.

A variety of software assisted systems and automated programs help several hundred editors to watch for problematic edits and editors. An arbitration committee sits at the top of all editor conduct disputes,[1] and its members are elected by an established enquiry and decision-making process in which all regular editors can equally participate.

Special research considerations concerning Wikipedia

Use multiple independent sources

Because Wikipedia is licensed under the GFDL, its content is often reproduced, especially online. Researchers should be especially careful of the FUTON bias ("Full Text On the Net" bias) and ensure that a second article appearing to confirm a Wikipedia article is not (for example) simply a copy of an earlier version. One place to look for additional sources to use in assessing the quality of a Wikipedia article is to look at the sources it cites. An article that faithfully reflects the information and intent of a large number of high quality sources is likely to be a very reliable indicator of the current state of knowledge on a subject. An article with fewer or no sources listed or sources of lower quality may not reflect a researcher's desired high quality. The only way to ensure the article faithfully reflects the information in high quality sources is to read and understand the cited sources and perhaps others. Often at the least a Wikipedia article will be an excellent overview of a given subject, making it easier to understand the cited sources and know what type of information to look for.

Examine an article's history

The process of creating Wikipedia is radically open. As a result, unlike most reference works, it is possible that, even for a generally excellent and stable article, the latest version at any given moment may have been subject to recent edits which are not of the same quality as the rest of the article.

However, unlike most reference works, you can access the history of the article (previous versions and change comments) and the discussion between the editors who created it. Often, if you have questions about an article or are looking to do in-depth research on a subject, reading the history and talk pages gives you further insight into why the article says what it says and which points of the article (if any) are in dispute and may particularly merit further research.

Internal links

Wikipedia breathes new life into one of the initial dreams of the World Wide Web: hyperlinks. Hyperlinks allow Wikipedia authors to link any word or phrase to another Wikipedia article, often providing annotations of great value. Background information to an article no longer needs to be limited or even produced by the author of the article. This method has proved to have major limitations on the Internet as a whole, because for a variety of reasons links are prone to quickly become obsolete. However, internal links within Wikipedia can be made with confidence, and so Wikipedia serves a web of mutually supporting information.

Some articles are probably over-linked with important links liable to be lost like needles in a haystack. Also, someone may have linked a word without looking to see whether it leads to anything useful: you may follow up a link and find nothing more than what you just read, or even find an article on an unrelated meaning of the same word. In general, this problem is less common in the English-language Wikipedia than in Wikipedias in some other languages.


Wikipedia has had its own user defined category system (folksonomy) since the beginning of 2004. The category system is a collaborative categorization system using freely chosen keywords by all contributors to Wikipedia. This feature allows researchers to navigate Wikipedia via categories, which can be very useful.

Virtually all articles now have some form of categorization; however, the quality of this can be highly variable. In many topic areas contributors have created detailed and well-organized categorization; in other topic areas, categorization has occurred in a more ad hoc fashion and is sometimes poorly done.

In all categorized articles, you should be able to find a list of categories at the very bottom of that article.

Take advantage of "what links here"

One of the lesser known, but extremely useful, techniques for researching with Wikipedia is the effective use of the "What links here" link which appears on the left side of the screen, as the first item in the box marked "toolbox". This will give you a complete list of other Wikipedia articles which link to the current article. Even if the article you are looking at is a stub — or, more remarkably, if it is a blank article that has not yet been started — numerous related articles may be easily accessible through this feature. Sometimes these backward links will show you ways in which the article you started from is incomplete in one area or another.

Take advantage of "printable version"

Another feature of the "toolbox" is the "Printable version". Use it whenever you want to print articles for a printer-friendly version of the article. Browsers, such as Mozilla Firefox, that recognize the media print will automatically apply the printable version when printing with the default Monobook stylesheet.

Understand Wikipedia's biases

No good scholar expects any given reference work to be truly unbiased. Instead, one comes to understand the expected bias of a particular work. For example, in looking at the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, one expects to find some Anglocentric perspectives and attitudes about race, ethnicity, sex, and sexuality that by today's standards seem prudish and perhaps bigoted. In using Collier's Encyclopedia, one should expect a rather Americentric perspective (and probably a lesser degree of scholarship than in Britannica, but a more easily readable style).

Unlike some reference works, Wikipedia's biases are inconsistent. Wikipedians come from all over the world and all walks of life. While we strive to have articles fit a neutral point of view, many articles are not yet there. In fact, two articles on related subjects may have been written by different people and reflect different biases. Even within a single article radically different or conflicting biases may be found. It is also a matter of contention whether certain views are described in a neutral manner.

In this respect, Wikipedia is more like a library (or like the World Wide Web itself) than like a typical reference work. The mere fact that a book is in the library is no guarantee against bias or misinformation. The same can be said of Wikipedia articles. This does not make them useless, it just means that they should be approached differently than one approaches a typical reference work.

Use Wikipedia's social process

Wikipedia is not just an encyclopedia—it is also an immense community of active contributors, or Wikipedians. In the history section of each article, you can find out which users contributed what material to an article. In addition, each article has a talk page. If you have questions about the article, asking on its talk page or the talk page of the users who contributed the text will often get your question answered. Then you and the contributor may update the article to make it clearer for the next researcher.

Probably the most general approach to this is to first put your question on the talk page of the appropriate article, then put a note on the talk page of the relevant contributor or contributors calling their attention to your question.

Questions like this are often very useful to the refinement of articles. If you have a relevant question that was not answered by the article, there is a fair chance that others will need this information also, and it should be added to the article.

In general, you should not expect Wikipedians to contact you by email. Instead, check back to the talk page periodically to see if your question has been answered.

We strongly recommend that if you want to participate in the Wikipedia community you create a Wikipedia account (it's free, you don't need to provide any personal or contact information, and there won't be any spam). If you log in, and if you sign your posts on talk pages with ~~~~, that will be saved on the talk page as an account signature and a timestamp. Posting to talk pages with an account is not only a local social norm, but it makes it possible for you to retain your identity across multiple editing sessions and avoid being confused with others.

Look for comprehensive review

A small number of English-language Wikipedia articles — most notably, featured articles — have had broad, systematic review. These articles usually remain at a high level of quality, but it is possible (although unlikely) that a previously reviewed article may have deteriorated since the time it received that level of attention.

Wikipedia:WikiReader discusses one of the more ambitious schemes to bring a comparable level of scrutiny to a large number of articles. As of November 2004, there have been no English-language WikiReaders published, although at least two have been issued in German, and a number of English-language WikiReaders are in progress.

Another proposed approach to formally reviewing more articles can be found at Wikipedia:WikiProject Fact and Reference Check; however, this project is still in its infancy, as is Wikipedia:Forum for Encyclopedic Standards.

Despite this shortage of formal review, many articles have had enormous scrutiny. Again, this can often be identified informally by browsing the history and discussion associated with the article.

Citing Wikipedia

First you should question the appropriateness of citing any encyclopedia as a source or reference. This is not simply a Wikipedia-specific issue, as most secondary schools and institutions of higher learning do not consider encyclopedias, in general, a proper citable source. Citation of Wikipedia in research papers has been known to result in a failing grade.[2][3][4]

This does not mean Wikipedia is not useful: Wikipedia articles contain many links to newspaper articles, books (often with ISBN numbers), radio programming, television shows, Web-based sources, and the like. It will usually be more acceptable to cite those original sources rather than Wikipedia since it is, by nature, a secondary or tertiary source. At the same time, simple academic ethics require that you should actually read the work that you cite: if you do not actually have your hands on a book, you should not misleadingly cite it as your source.

There are cases where contributions to Wikipedia are considered original and important enough on topics not covered in other works, so as to be considered a citeable (secondary) source. (For example, according to the New York Times' website, "The Supreme Court of Iowa cite[d] Wikipedia to explain that “jungle juice” is 'the name given to a mix of liquor that is usually served for the sole purpose of becoming intoxicated.'") [5]

Owing to the radical openness of Wikipedia, decisions about referencing articles must be made on an article-by-article basis. If one does choose to cite a Wikipedia article, references should identify a specific version of an article by providing the date and time it was created. This can be found in the edit history of the article.

If you decide to cite Wikipedia, remember that its articles are constantly changing: cite exact time, date, and version of the article version you are using. Page history and toolbox features "cite this article" and "permanent link" are very useful for finding that information. For example, the link is for a specific version of this page created at 22:13 on 17 January 2007; 101425275 is the article version number. The link will display the article as it existed at that time; no later revisions will be included in the text.

Wikipedia:Wikipedia as an academic source pages contains examples of academic publications that used Wikipedia as a source.

Further help

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Main page: Wikipedia:FAQ
FAQ index: Index of all Wikipedia FAQ pages

Other help and feedback

There is an established escalation and dispute process within Wikipedia, as well as pages designed for raising questions, feedback, suggestions and comments, and community discussion. (See About Wikipedia).

Facilities for help for users researching specific topics can be found at:

Because of the nature of Wikipedia, it's encouraged that people looking for information should try to find it themselves in the first instance. If, however, you come across valid information missing from Wikipedia, be bold and add it yourself so others can gain from your research, too!

See also


  1. ^ The founder of Wikipedia is the sole individual empowered to override this process, but has stated in public that extreme circumstances aside, he will not do so.
  2. ^ Jeff Young (June 12, 2006). "Wikipedia Founder Discourages Academic Use of His Creation". The Chronicle of Higher Education. 
  3. ^ Andrew Orlowski (28 May 2006). "New Age judge blasts Apple". The Register. 
  4. ^ Andrew Orlowski (15 June 2006). "Avoid Wikipedia, warns Wikipedia chief". The Register. 
  5. ^ Noam Cohen (29 January 2007). "Courts turn to Wikipedia, but selectively". The New York Times. 

External links

  • Using Wikipedia. Carleton College
  • brochure on how to evaluate a Wikipedia article and pdf version
  • How to Evaluate a Wikipedia Article – A one-page PDF with similar recommendations to this page.
  • Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask from the University of California, Berkeley
  • Critically Analyzing Information Sources from Cornell University
  • Roy Rosenzweig, Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past, Center for History and New Media. Originally published in The Journal of American History Volume 93, Number 1 (June, 2006): 117-46.
  • Rob Weir, Does Wikipedia Suck? Inside Higher Ed. March 26, 2010. A discussion of teaching critical evaluation of wikipedia and other online sources in a classroom setting.
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