OK, so maybe not everybody is talking about Wikipedia, but if you hang out with college instructors and librarians, eventually the subject comes up, and everyone has an opinion. Some instructors, like Australia’s Sharman Lichtenstein according to this Computer World article, ban it from the the classroom completely. The article quotes her saying, “People are unwittingly trusting the information they find on Wikipedia, yet experience has shown it can be wrong, incomplete, biased, or misleading.”
How wrong can it be, and does it really matter? Well, according to this Defamer post, Judd Apatow (creator of Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and other comedy films) is or isn’t sexist depending on what day you log in. And of his Wikipedia bio, 30 Rock’s Judah Friedlander (you know, the one with the trucker hats) says, “Wikipedia is both correct and incorrect – but basically incorrect.” Not too pressing of issues, so what about for research? Back in 2005, Nature magazine sent articles from Wikipedia and the print Encyclopaedia Britannica to subject experts and asked them to look for inaccuracies. The two sources had equal numbers of serious errors (four in the 42 articles reviewed), and Wikipedia had slightly more factual errors (162 compared to 123 in Britannica). This study was disputed by Britannica, but regardless, it makes me think that either source, Wikipedia or Britannica, is a starting point, not a research destination.
No matter what people think about the use of Wikipedia in academic research, most people agree on a couple of points. First, use Wikipedia with a discerning eye. It’s a good idea to double check any facts you find there. Second, one of the best uses of Wikipedia is looking at the end of the article at sources listed under References, External Links, and Further Reading. Often these lead you to some high-quality academic sources that we here at the library’s reference desk can help you track down. Finally, don’t use Wikipedia at the exclusion of some great reference sources and databases your library already owns. For focused, quality research, the librarian at the reference desk can help you access some very powerful tools.
Happy researching and be sure contact us know if we can help with the process.