Using Wikipedia wisely
Posted by Lisa Hill on June 14, 2009
Wikipedia is in constant use around the world today, and nearly all of us use it as a frontline source of information now. Somewhere, I have read that while there can be inaccuracies, research showed that there were actually fewer errors in Wikipedia than in the Britannica, especially for more recent information. Well, maybe that depends on the entry. Wikipedia’s team of scrutineers monitor contentious topics (e.g. Israel/Palestine) and sometimes ‘lock’ them so that changes have to pass scrutiny; sometimes there is just a warning to be wary, as there was when I used the entry on Muhammed Ali as a source for one of my students who had chosen him as a subject for our current Biography unit of work. Overall, I find it remarkably helpful, especially when seeking information about countries that don’t feature so much in US/UK encyclopaedias – not least Australia! Some of the entries are excellent, and have been written with clarity and expertise, as I found when I wanted to know more about Modernism, (see my post about it at ANZLitLovers).
But there can be pitfalls, and I am indebted to my good friend Sue Terry, from Whispering Gums, for the following advice about using Wikipedia wisely. All students should be made aware of these tips for sorting out the good from the bad:
- check the footnotes/references: good Wikipedia articles cite their sources, not just as references at the end of the article, but in-line at the point statements are made.
- make sure the sources are valid: look at the domain names (such as dot gov and dot edu) and the authority of the person or organisation behind that source. Blogs, for example, are great to read but they are not necessarily a reliable source for an encyclopedia article.
- look for multiple sources: these can provide a double-check on statements made, particularly the more controversial ones
- check that the sources themselves don’t cite each other: circular referencing can be common in the on-line information world.
- look under the “Discussion” tab: this is where articles are assessed (though these are not always up to date) and where discussion about the article occurs – contentious issues, exclusion versus inclusion of information, definition of terms, etc, can be discussed here.
- look under the “History” tab: while many Wikipedia editors are anonymous or semi-anonymous, you can get a sense of who has been involved and the level of their activity and involvement.
- note any tags on the articles: editors tag articles that have problems, such as poor or no citation of sources, incomplete or minimal content, and so on. Some of this may be obvious but sometimes these tags can clue you in to how useful the article may be, where its weaknesses are.
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