Wikipedia overused as a scholarly source

Katrina Mossberger

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia written entirely by volunteers that has been snowballing in popularity since its creation in 2001. Any one who wanders onto a Wikipedia page can edit most Wikipedia entries, which should lead us all to be concerned when students are increasingly using the site as a source in their academic work.

We’ve been learning tips on recognizing credible Internet sources since high school. Wikipedia, at first, seems like it could be 100 percent credible and accurate. But the problem lies in the fact that anyone can create or change an article, even if their information is false. They also can be subject to bias and vandalism. Because of the open editing process, editing wars can erupt and cause Wikipedia to lock or even delete an entry.

A credible academic source doesn’t constantly change per the opinion of two users. Remember those heavy encyclopedia books everyone used to use? You’ll never find their entries constantly crossed out and changed to fit another person’s interpretation of the entry.

This isn’t to say that the facts can’t change over time as new information arises. After all those mnemonics devices everyone learned as a kid, Pluto was demoted from its planetary rank. Facts can change over time after more research comes to light. But they shouldn’t waver back and forth from day to day.

Vandalism is another major concern. Users can wage wars, constantly changing information when it’s corrected. They can leave their biased opinion as fact or malicious messages, especially on less frequented pages.

Wikipedia’s main safeguard is a policy of citing reputable and reliable sources in lieu of a team of fact-checkers. But it can be hard for the Wikipedia team to enforce the rule in the face of the overwhelming amount of users and peer editors on the site.

The Wikipedia staff will also try to warn users when there are disputes as to the neutrality of an article or when it has been vandalized. They will also include a link to a forum where users can discuss their thoughts on the issue involved in the article. This does make Wikipedia a tool truly for the user. But do you really want to use a source when its neutrality has been called into question?

Good Wikipedia entries will have lots of citations and sources listed at the bottom of the page. Why not just explore the original source of the information, rather than quote Wikipedia? Referring back to the original source is the proper method of research anyway, whether it’s Wikipedia or a magazine article.

Wikipedia isn’t necessarily a sound academic source, but it’s a starting point. Instead of quoting what could be someone’s very wrong opinion about a subject, use Wikipedia as a way to direct your research and then continue your research with the links provided.