Research paper–meet Wikipedia!
With the rise of the internet, wikipedia has become a popular source of information of all kinds. An often-heard statement may be, “According to Wikipedia” or “I looked it up on Wikipedia.”
However, one of the first thing that people are told when writing a formal college paper is:
You cannot cite wikipedia as one of your sources!
Well, why not? And if we can’t, what good is it?
The general answer to why not is that it is user-created content. But what does that possible mean?
Let’s say you are to do a research paper on fezzes. So you start reading:
Now, since you know nothing about fezzes, that sounds reasonable. Maybe slight unprofessional but reasonable.
However, what it should read is:
What happened with that?
Someone edited the wikipedia article. That is what it means by user-created content. Anyone can create anything. Not only might have you put in your paper that fezzes’ name may come from the word “cool” in Greek, but you might have mentioned that fezzes are worn with bow-ties.
Another example, with less pictures. My brother and mom were having an argument about the word “bloke“. Bloke is an English term for basically a regular man. My mom did not like the sound of the word, and did not think that it was appropriate for use in South Dakota, USA. So my brother edited the wikipedia artile to say:
North America, except Quebec and South Dakota: dated, rare.
Now, since my mom was originally citing wikipedia, wikipedia now agrees with my brother’s side and thus, she loses.
Now that we’ve gotten it cleared up as to why we cannot use wikipedia as a source, what good is it in formal writing? There are actually several good uses for it.
1) A starting point. Say that you need to write a paper on a topic you know nothing about. You might not have even heard about the topic. You can go to wikipedia and get a background of the said topic. Say, also, that you are writing a position paper and you aren’t really quite sure what the other side is saying. On at least some topics, wikipedia will give a good foundation for what the opposition says, so you can counter their arguments.
2) A point of reference. Just because you cannot cite wikipedia does not mean that you cannot cite wikipedia’s citation. Now, this doesn’t mean that we can take a section of an article, say, here:
Go to the 2 source here:
And type that up in MLA or APA or whatever format you need for your paper. I’m sorry, but you do need to actually read the source you are citing, because sometimes people will misconstrue the article’s meaning. But, if you are having a difficult time finding sources, sometimes wikipedia can be there to give you options.
3) Pictures. There are some terms that are really easy to do a search for. Say, beagles. I do a search for beagles and I get quite a few. However, if I do a search for fezzes I get some. Not that many however.
However, I do a search what the official weight of the kilogram stored in France looks like and I get nothing. Not a clue. However, I go to wikipedia, look up kilogram and I get:
Which is apparently called the international prototype kilogram. I didn’t know that.
Now that I’ve seen the picture, if I can’t include it in what I am writing (and most images on wikpedia are either licensed creative commons or public domain, so you can use the picture.), I can at least describe what it looks like.
So, wikipedia does have its place and is a valuable research tool, both to understand the topic at hand, and to get places to do further research. So now you know how to use wikipedia when writing research papers.