How to Use Wikipedia For Research

By Dario Borghino

“Welcome to Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that anyone can edit” recites the banner on the front page of the site.

That doesn’t sound like something a student looking for accurate information for his research wants to hear, but that surely doesn’t mean Wikipedia is not a valuable site, with plenty of resources that can often help you find objective information.

It’s true: any user, even anonymous, can potentially edit almost every article to add or delete information at his discretion and, whether intentionally or not, meaningfully decrease its quality. However, with just a little bit of attention on your side, you can easily work around this defect — which, after all, didn’t stop Wikipedia from rapidly becoming the largest repository of human knowledge on the Internet — to extract valuable and unbiased information from almost every article.

How to recognize an unbiased article from one that may not be? Even in what seems a well-written piece, you usually can’t be sure that each and every single sentence in it contains correct statements. As a rule of thumb, try looking at the number of references compared to the article length.

A long article with few references is likely to have been written recently by very few users, which means the matter hasn’t quite been discussed and reviewed properly yet, while one with many references is much more likely to contain correct statements.

The other main factor to take into consideration are the so called ‘meta-data’ associated to it. Wikipedia, just like many other wikis, offers a number of pages related to the article itself which very often help you decide on whether you should trust its content or not.

To sum up, the main factors to take into consideration are:

1) the article length;

2) {number of references} / {article length} ratio;

3) its protection policy;

4) the date of creation;

5) the article history;

6) the number of pictures, tables, etc.;

7) its quality rating.

Finally, you can still use Wikipedia for your research even if, all things considered, you are not too confident about the quality of the article. In cases like this, you can still use Wikipedia as a secondary source by looking at the References and External Links sections.

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