What about Wikipedia?

Now that the 4th Form research paper is in full swing, many may be wondering  “just why can’t I use Wikipedia as a source for my research paper?”

Well, what is wrong with using Wikipedia for background information?

There’s nothing wrong with Wikipedia; in fact, its premise is inherently pretty awesome.  As a research librarian, I just love that as a species, we collectively thought “Hey, we need an easy, online, way to get background info.”  And lo, Wikipedia!  Wikipedia can be a great place to browse for topics, get a general sense of a topic and may also provide some leads to additional, quality sources within an article’s bibliography.

But, as researchers, we must always consider both the writer and the intent of the writing.  Because Wikipedia can be written and edited by anyone, there is a chance not only for errors but also for (sometimes severe) bias.
Consider this short list of examples:

  • Justin Bieber fans maligned the Wikipedia page of Esperanza Spalding after she won a Grammy (& he didn’t).
  • Professor Messer-Kruse, author of 2 books about the Haymarket riots, cannot permanently change the Wikipedia entry on this topic because his research findings are not mainstream enough.
  • Speaking of mainstream, who edits Wikipedia anyway?  A survey published in 2010, conducted by the Wikimedia Foundation discovered that 87% of edits are done by males, their average age being 26.
  • Similarly, the CBC Radio’s Q recently (4/17/2012) interviewed Sarah Stierch from the Smithsonian.  A writer and editor of Wikipedia, she discusses how difficult it is to add historical female scientist entries to Wikipedia as these scientists do not meet the Wikipedia notability factor.  She also refers to the recent finding that only 9% of content on Wikipedia is created by women.
  • And how about accuracy?  Well, this 2008 study, published in Reference Services Review compared the factual accuracy of Wikipedia articles to the factual accuracy of Reference articles.  While the sample was small, the study found 80% accuracy within Wikipedia and 95-96% accuracy within the Reference articles.
  • In 2007 a tool was created to track-back edits, meaning, one could discover the origin of the IP address of the computer used to edit a given article.  This revealed some interesting discoveries, some of which NPR reported here.

As a researcher it is critical to use material that is accurate and to be able to identify bias within a work.  For these reasons, within the academic community, it remains largely recommended to use the gold standard of background information, the Reference collection.

Thankfully, the ease of online access has come to library reference collections.  Please visit the Library’s eReference page for a comprehensive collection of digitized reference titles, both general and subject-specific, purchased by the Library.

Visual Aid

Here’s a screen shot (2-15-2011) of an unusual edit I happened to stumble upon, to the Wikipedia entry on Reference Works.  (No, it wasn’t me).


Questions about the Library’s eReference collections?  Please contact Lura Sanborn (lsanborn @ sps dot edu).

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