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The Trick to Using Wikipedia When Writing a Research Paper

Posted By Staff Writer on June 28, 2017

I was watching the news one day when a light and fun feature about a massive occurrence of “sea foam” off an Australian beach came on. It showed footage of sea foam so thick surfers were actually surfing on it! The feature itself was interesting and entertaining, and then . . . one of the news anchors used Wikipedia to explain the scientific reasons behind the large amount of sea foam. Citing Wikipedia? On a news station? Both the English teacher and researcher parts of me curled up into a corner and wept. When I was teaching academic writing at another university, I would spend nearly three full weeks discussing finding sources, analyzing them, and using them properly in a paper. The most common question I was asked was: “Can I use Wikipedia as a source?” The short answer? A resounding, emphatic, “NO!!!” The long answer? Well, it's a little more complicated.

What is Wikipedia, anyway?

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Wikipedia is, by nature, a wiki. Wikis are editable by anyone who wants to create an account and post. Of course, the fine folks at Wikipedia do put some limits on who can post where, and usually, posts are made by subject matter experts who are academically vested in the pages they post to. However, that is not always the case. In July 2006, Stephen Colbert, host of the parody news show, The Colbert Report, on his segment “Wikiality” discussed how Wikipedia can be edited at will, and how it can spuriously be used to back up facts. Then he urged his viewers to find the entry on elephants and post that the elephant population is booming, contrary to many reports that elephants are on the verge of extinction. It didn't take long before many of Colbert's viewers were editing the pages on elephants. There were so many changes made to various pages that Wikipedia's servers actually went down!

So what did I mean by the long answer is more complicated on using Wikipedia?

As I stated earlier (and no doubt you've heard before), you should never cite Wikipedia as a source. This means that you should never take information written on Wikipedia as fact and put it in your paper as such. However, that doesn't mean you can't use Wikipedia to help you find reputable sources to use. At the bottom of each Wikipedia page, there are usually two sections, “References” and “External Links.” The sources listed there may be reputable and available for you to use. Let's say I am going to write an academic paper on sea foam for a class. I type “sea foam” into my search engine, and one of the first hits is for Wikipedia. I click on the link to see what Wikipedia has to say. The information looks fairly accurate, but remember, this page can be edited by anyone. See that red arrow that points to "References"? That is what we want to check out.

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Most of them appear to be news articles. The first reference, “What is that foam in the surf?” from seems like it may be a good resource to find out more about this fluffy foam. Clicking on that link, I am redirected to what appears to be a personal website or blog. It doesn't seem like a source I would want to use on an academic paper about sea foam. I click back to the Wikipedia page. Now, I am going to look at the External Links section. I see something called, “How foam forms on ocean waves.” It is from an article from the periodical New Scientist. That looks promising. When I click on that link, I am redirected to a snippet of the original article. It looks like a credible source and one that I could use in a paper on sea foam. That is how you could possibly use Wikipedia as a tool to help you in your search for sources. That being said, one of the best steps to take when beginning research is to go to the Library Resources found in SHARC, and utilize one of the many journal and research databases that are available there. However, the lure of Wikipedia can be strong. Should you be so tempted to check out a Wikipedia page, you now know what parts of Wikipedia can be utilized. Happy source-finding!

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Whitney King

Whitney L. King is the Dean of General Education for Independence University, the online sister college of Stevens-Henager College. She holds a BS in American Studies, where she focused on English, folklore, history, and political science. She also has her MS in American Studies, where she focused on digital culture and online communities. She is currently working on a second MS in Instructional Design and Learning Sciences, with plans to pursue her doctorate in education. She has taught writing courses at Utah State University and served as the department chair for the College Study Series. Whitney dislikes snow and all forms of cold weather and hopes to one day settle in sunny, dry Arizona.