Wikipedia – Is It Useful For Scholarship?

There’s been a debate raging for years in academia about the validity of using Wikipedia as a source in academic scholarship.  I grew up in a time when the internet was still in its infancy…which is to say that I call recall using a dial-up modem and the main browsers to the interwebs where either America Online (AOL) or Netscape Navigator.  This also means I grew up in a time when teachers frowned upon their students using only the internet for their research.  So, in many ways, I am a product of my time and maintain a certain skepticism about the information I find online.  This is not to say that I’m some “internet-hater” who dismisses the use of all digital technology, rather, I find that there are always benefits and drawbacks to it.  We’ve already looked at the concept of digital journalism and media literacy, which included an examination of source analysis, but in this post I want to look at what ways I find Wikipedia to be either useful or unsuitable in the process of conducting research.

What is WIKIPEDIA as a type of source?

The whole purpose of Wikipedia is that it’s an online encyclopedia that anyone can freely edit.  Encyclopedia are tertiary sources and tertiary sources usually aren’t used in academic research because they tend to heavily summarize content.  I.e. it’s decontextualized.  Unless, it can somehow be used as a secondary source.

In fact, if you scroll down to the bottom of the page on Wikipedia and click on the disclaimer, it takes you to a page that specifically lists the reasons that the website cannot guarantee its validity.

In terms of scholarship, the biggest issues I see are the lack of formal peer review, issues with jurisdiction and legality of content, and the fact that Wikipedia does not constitute professional advice.  Most of these disclaimers are also true of other reference works, but this brings up the issue of quality in the writing of Wikipedia articles themselves.

It’s not just the fact that anybody can edit the articles or that the information can change rapidly, but if you look at the quality of the writing, you’ll find that it varies depending on who wrote it and what topic it covers.  At the risk of making a general statement, I’ve found that Wikipedia tends to be weaker in the social sciences and humanities fields.  This is particularly noticeable when it comes to critical analysis and interpretation.  Anything that requires an expert interpretation or the services of a professional, then Wikipedia is not the go-to source.  However, it does tend to do better in hard scientific fields such as mathematics, physics, or chemistry, to name a few.

From a Methodological Standpoint

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we live in a digital age where everything is readily available.  We’ve become very instant gratification and we really should relearn what it means to have patience and thoroughness.

Sadly, not everything is actually online and sometimes you really do need to hunt down a physical book.  Furthermore, sometimes the digital versions are poorly formatted and a book is better.  Or it could just be personal preference.  This is particularly evident in
topics that are highly specific or in fields that are highly technical.  In such fields, the information isn’t widely published because it’s not profitable for the average publisher.  Sometimes, the only place you can find certain detailed information is in academia. 
If you’re an undergraduate or graduate student, then you probably have access to academic libraries and databases.  The librarian at your college/university library can help you find what you’re looking for, sometimes faster or more efficiently than a Google search.  This goes back to the previous post on media literacy and our look at source analysis.  Given Wikipedia’s lack of formal peer review, it behooves you to search for more authoritative sources.  This is where the works cited pages come in handy on Wikipedia.  I’ll get to that later.

This is why you use multiple sources, you cite your sources, and you cross-reference or corroborate the information in your sources.  You’ll often find that different sources say slightly different or completely different things on the exact same event. It’s up to you to make a judgment on which sources are best to use.  This is also why source critique and evaluation is important.  These are basic research 101 skills.  It’s not rocket science.  If we accept everything at face value without effective critical analysis or evaluation, then we essentially honor sensationalism and the celebrity.  Wikipedia shouldn’t replace the ability or mental discipline to do basic research, critical thinking or analysis.  If you want to establish credibility for yourself and be taken seriously, then building and refining your skills in these areas is a step towards that.

The more and more you develop skills in research and gain knowledge on your own research interests, then the less value Wikipedia will be to you.  This is because you’ve identified the authoritative sources and assimilated a lot of in-depth knowledge.  At that point, Wikipedia won’t really tell you anything you don’t already know.  This is basically my case with me studying the Imperial Japanese Navy.  I almost never use Wikipedia in my research anymore because I have an entire bookshelf of good sources to draw from. That being said, I’m constantly trying to think critically and evaluate the knowledge I have.

When reading a history book authored by either a professional historian or something that has gotten a public release, then I almost immediately go to the bibliography and look at the sources used. In history, if you can’t verify your sources, then you’ve lost credibility. Theoretically, Wikipedia can contain information from anywhere and anyone. Good Wikipedia articles are well-cited. Seeing a Wikipedia citation in the bibliography of a history book is a big red flag to me because it shows a lack of professionalism on the part of the author, whether they’re a professional historian or not. Why? Because it tells me that the author did not take the effort to properly source the information. As if to say, “Really? You couldn’t take the time to check where Wikipedia got its information from? Assuming that it was properly cited to begin with?” Wikipedia or not, if there are no citations, then historians have no reason to believe your claim.

Is WIKIPEDIA actually useful?

So I’ve prattled on about how much Wikipedia sucks.  Do I see any value in its use?  Of course!

I find Wikipedia to be useful in the following cases:

  • For quick fact-checking of simple things like names, dates, etc.
  • If you need a quick primer on a subject you’re unfamiliar with.
  • Being used as a starting point, NOT an end point for research by looking at the sources used in an article (AKA Source mining).  This is actually one of the strengths of Wikipedia over other traditional tertiary sources…provided that the Wikipedia article actually has sources.  Good Wikipedia articles are well-cited, so you can do your own hunt through the bibliography.

For another historian’s perspective on Wikipedia, I’d recommend checking out the following video by The Cynical Historian.

References:

The Cynical Historian. (2017, November 2). Wikipedia | The Diatribe [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYBD3VV3eao

Wikipedia: General disclaimer. (2018 September 18). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:General_disclaimer

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