As a tool for scholarly research, Wikipedia can be either a grade-killer or a valuable friend, depending on who you ask and what you hope to accomplish using it. What is fairly certain is that your professor won't let you cite it in a scholarly research paper.
There are a few common reasons why you can’t site Wikipedia:
- Wikipedia is a general encyclopedia. At the collegiate or university level, your professors are looking for more than general rudimentary material. General encyclopedias usually give baseline information, the type of common knowledge that isn't usually cited. Academic subject-specific encyclopedias will often provide more scholarly and citeable information.
- There is often no way to know who is editing the entries in Wikipedia or what his or her level of expertise is.
- You cannot be sure that the content is “permanent” (although you can look at the revision history on the History page).
- You cannot be sure that the content meets standards of academic rigor. One of Wikipedia’s main principles is that it strives for a neutral point of view (which it abbreviates to NPOV). This standard states that all articles should strive to “represent…all significant views on each topic fairly, proportionately, and without bias.” The problem is that in any knowledge endeavor, much less a collaborative and ad hoc venture like Wikipedia, deciding what's neutral and having something reviewed for NPOV can be controversial undertakings and too uncertain to meet standards of academic rigor. However, having such a debate take place publicly on Wikipedia makes for interesting talk-page reading and for a good pros-and-cons debate.
Two other Wikipedia policies relevant to academic rigor are its verifiability and “no original research” policies.
Tips for Using Wikipedia Effectively
Use Wikipedia to get a general overview, and follow the references it provides as far as they can take you.
Look at the Discussion tab to see if the article you’re reading is part of a WikiProject, meaning that a group of people who care about the subject area are working in concert on its content. They may not be experts on the subject, but signing onto a WikiProject implies a writer has more than a casual interest in it.
If it is part of a WikiProject, see if it has been rated. Articles in WikiProjects go through a type of peer review. This is not the same type of peer review your professor talks about regarding scholarly research, but even such a limited review does at least imply that someone from the WikiProject has looked at the article at some point and assigned a quality rating to it. In any case, to be fairly sure that a Wikipedia article expresses what laypeople might need to know to consider themselves reasonably informed, look for a rating of B/A or above.
You may wish to consult any or all of the following for additional help in finding and evaluating sources:
- Wikipedia assignments
- Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View guideline
- Wikipedia on verifiability
- Wikipedia on original research (example)
- Wikipedia: Peer review
- The Seven Steps of the Research Process. A resource designed to answer questions about evaluating sources of information.
- Critically Analyzing Information Sources. This resource lists some of the critical questions you should ask when you consider the appropriateness of a particular book, article, media resource, or Web site for your research.
- Distinguishing Scholarly from Nonscholarly Periodicals: A Checklist of Criteria. This resource shows how to evaluate periodicals by looking at their format, intended audience, and appearance.
- Evaluating Web Sites: Criteria and Tools. This resource lists ways to analyze the Web sites you find.
- Evaluating Resources and Evaluating Web Resources. These resources, available on the Introduction to Research page at the Cornell University Library Web site, provide additional information.
- Five Criteria for Evaluating Web Sites. This resource offers a table of suggestions.