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Why You Shouldn’t Use Wikipedia for Research

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We recently enlisted the help of one of the online librarians at APUS to share why Wikipedia may not be the best place to search for information.

How to find alternatives to improve your scholarly research.

The quality of your education hinges on the quality of your research. Did you know that Wikipedia entries can be written and edited by anyone? That’s why I advise students to always consider the source when researching information for their scholarly projects. Wikipedia can be helpful in guiding you as you gather ideas about a subject, but remember the information is unsubstantiated and in some cases, inaccurate. What you’re looking for is a trusted academic source.    

“Wikipedia, as well as Google, Bing, Yahoo and other public search engines offer unprecedented searching power – but they can also be an intellectual mess for scholars,“ said Fred Stielow Dean of the Academic Library at American Public University System (APUS). Although you may feel more comfortable using search engines like Google than with in-depth Web resources like the library databases; turning to an open Web search engine can cause problems if you aren’t careful. Search results and unverified entries like those found in Wikipedia pages are inconsistent. Some entries are long and thorough, while others are short and omit critical information.

For example, I can click the “Edit this Page” tab in Wikipedia and change an entry I’m searching on however I choose. So if I decide that Flora is not only the goddess of flowers and the season of spring, but also of minty fluoride toothpaste, I can make it so, regardless of whether or not it’s false.

While there is nothing wrong with turning to a Wikipedia entry to collect background information, be sure that you:

  • Verify the information you find with at least two other sources
  • Cite the authoritative source in your paper and not Wikipedia
  • Check with your academic library site or a librarian if you’re unsure

Blogs and Websites

Your research paper can only be as strong as the sources you cite, and Web searches tend to pull up many sources that are not very strong at all. Just as anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry, anyone can publish a website or blog. Many blogs and websites–particularly anonymous ones or ones where you cannot verify the author’s credentials–are inappropriate to use in a college-level research project. This is true of personal webpages too, even when they appear on .edu sites, which is the domain designated for educational institutions. For example, student papers, including those that received poor grades, are often published on .edu sites, so you will want to evaluate the information carefully and only cite sources written by experts in the field.

Dot-Com Sites

Dot-com sites are often too problematic to use for research projects. Most of the sites that have .com in the URL are most likely marketing related. The people hosting the sites are trying to sell you something. So if you’re writing a paper about the potential health benefits and hazards of milk consumption, gotmilk.com isn’t your best or impartial source. While you might find it useful to analyze the content of .com sites, beware of using information in these sites to support your arguments.

I encourage you to utilize your school’s library staff when researching assignments. They’ll be able to help you pinpoint credible journals and sources. With options like Turnitin.com, a plagiarism check Website used by many universities, you’ll want to ensure that what you’re turning in for class is factual and properly cited.

By Christy Stevens
Online Librarian, American Public University System

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