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Wikipedia: What's the Deal, Anyway?  

Last Updated: Jun 8, 2011 URL: http://libguides.southalabama.edu/wikipedia Print Guide RSS Updates

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Elizabeth Rugan
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University Library Room 246
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Reference and Instruction Librarian
 

About Wikipedia

The Basics:

  • Wikipedia is an online, multilingual, collaborative encyclopedia.
  • Anyone with internet access can create or edit articles.
  • Users can write anonymously, under a pseudonym, or using their real name.
  • According to Wikipedia, there are approximately 78,000,000 visits to the site per month. There are about 91,000 active contributors and 171,000,000 articles in 270 languages. Every day, tens of thousands of edits are made and thousands of new entries are created.1

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About, accessed 1/14/11.

 

Wikipedia: The Bad Stuff

Pitfalls of Wikipedia:

  • Anyone can write or edit Wikipedia entries, except in certain cases when articles are protected, and they can write anonymously. This means you don't know who the author is or what their expertise is. The editors are also people from the internet, and the same applies to them. With a traditional encyclopedia, you are usually able to find out the author and/or editor which lets you evaluate their qualifications for writing the articles.
  • Articles can easily be vandalized. Often, vandalism is detected quickly, and Wikipedia's software allows changes to be reversed easily, but what if you happen to hit an article while it's still vandalized?
  • Mistakes happen. This is true in print reference sources too, but because of the editing and review processes it's less likely.
  • It can be hard to filter out the junk from the good stuff. Wikipedia has millions of articles, but how many relate to your topic?
  • It's really easy to get sidetracked in Wikipedia. You start looking at one article, and next thing you know you're twenty clicks away reading something completely unrelated to your initial search. This is fine when you have plenty of time, but if that paper deadline is looming...
  • Wikipedia is generally not an acceptable source for academic work, so you can expect to be penalized if you rely on it.
 

Wikipedia: The Good Stuff

The Upside of Wikipedia:

  • Because Wikipedia is so easily updated, it's very current. It takes time for paper encyclopedias to be produced, whereas Wikipedia can be updated in seconds.
  • Some Wikipedia articles can be great starting points - but always verify the information! Consult the references at the bottom of the article, and pay attention to any flags (or notes) about an article at the top.
  • The Wikipedia talk pages allow you to see and participate in conversations (or arguments) about what should be included in an article. Sometimes you may find a nugget of information on this page that catches your interest.
  • Mistakes can be fixed faster than in print encyclopedias.
 

Can I Use Wikipedia for My Paper?

Sort of.

  • Wikipedia can be a decent place to consult at the very start of your research process, particularly if you are completely unfamiliar with your assigned topic and it deals with recent happenings.

But beware...

  • Instructors often penalize students for citing Wikipedia for several reasons:
    • Concerns about the quality of the information
    • Concerns about the identity of authors and editors
    • Because encyclopedias in general may not be acceptable sources
  • Just because a Wikipedia article has a lot of references, it's not necessarily a good article. You need to evaluate the quality of the article and the references.

Remember - better safe than sorry!

  • When in doubt, steer clear of Wikipedia.
  • If you're lost and can't think of a place to consult instead, contact your friendly USA reference librarian and we can help!

Wikipedia Alternatives

  • Britannica Online
    The online version of Encyclopedia Britannica. Includes news headlines from the New York Times and BBC News, as well as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
  • Oxford Reference Online: Premium
    Includes general and subject dictionaries, the World Encyclopedia, maps, timelines, and books of quotations.

Guide Creator

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Ellen Wilson
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University Library 250
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Instructional Services Librarian
My favorite books are:
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Emotionally Weird, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Franny and Zooey, Imogene's Antlers

Guide Creator

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Elizabeth Rugan
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University Library Room 246
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Job title:
Reference and Instruction Librarian
 
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