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Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Reasoned Approach to Using Wikipedia

Having gotten a degree in a subject that requires quite a bit of research, I had the mantra drilled into my head that Wikipedia is not an acceptable source for research. I had professors who refused to count any research that cited Wikipedia as a source. However, Wikipedia is awfully convenient.

Fast forward several years. As a writer with many writer friends, I confess that almost all of us rely on Wikipedia for research. It’s easy. Much of the time, what’s on Wikipedia is copied from other sources or vice versa. If you do a search online, you’ll find exact quotes, and long ones at that, shared between Wikipedia articles and other online sources. (I won’t even begin to cover the potential issues of plagiarism there.) So, to be honest, Wikipedia isn’t the only research source that should be taken with a grain of salt.

Back to that convenience, though, Wikipedia also often offers a wider breadth of information than is easily gathered elsewhere online and especially via books. As a writer, if I just need to quickly check a fact or jog my memory, it can be a great resource. It’s also fantastic for getting a quick historical outline or list of subtopics. For example, this morning, while looking for new bread recipes, I looked at the Wikipedia article that lists types of bread, and oh so many yummy possibilities opened up that I would never have known about otherwise.

So let’s step back and take a look at Wikipedia beyond the issue of convenience.

First and foremost, the quality of the information should be the first factor in considering whether or not to use that information. It’s a well-known fact that anyone can alter the information on Wikipedia, which means that everything is suspect. At the same time, this is true of any information online. It’s true for print sources as well. While print sources go through more eyes, and thus presumably more oversight and critique, books and articles have been known to contain false information, to be misleading intentionally or accidentally, and to be proven false by later authors and research. So no matter what the source is, you should give the information it presents due consideration and not immediately assume it’s absolute fact. Perhaps it is truth, but allow reason, experience, and comparative sources to help establish that truth rather than blind trust.

Whether you determine that the information in a Wikipedia article is reliable or not, Wikipedia offers one nice resource at the end: Further Reading. This list located at the end of Wikipedia articles offers resources to help check facts or simply to expand your knowledge of a particular subject. Looking at the resources listed in the Further Reading can also give you an idea of how much research the author(s) put into the article. This list is a much easier jumping off point than the thousands and millions of possibilities a Google search will provide.

Beyond that, Wikipedia offers the See Also list. This web of links to related subjects open up a wide range knowledge and can help you spot connections you might not have known or realized. Sometimes the links aren’t helpful at all, but sometimes they contain gems.

Nowadays, despite my professors’ loathing for the source, I do use Wikipedia. However, I keep in mind that the source can be unreliable and faulty. Like anything in life, Wikipedia has it benefits and dangers. As long as I’m mindful of those dangers, I can reap the benefits of a convenient and helpful resource. I hope you can too.

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