Using Wikipedia

There has been a great change in the reputation of Wikipedia in the two years since I started calling myself a Wikipedian. Two years ago, whenever Wikipedia was mentioned – particularly in the media, in academic circles, by the “intelligentsia” – it was accompanied by a snide remark or derogatory tone. Suddenly, though, I am hearing Wikipedia referred to as a valid source on the radio (even on Aunty ABC) and seeing it cited in such places as major metropolitan newspapers.

Jimmy Wales. Shared under: Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0

Jimmy Wales. Shared under: Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0

In May 2007, the month I started writing Wikipedia articles, its cofounder Jimmy Wales visited Australia and espoused its philosophy and value. In March this year, Microsoft announced that it will cease its online encyclopedia, Encarta. Its main reason was that Encarta’s popularity faded after the nonprofit Wikipedia went online in 2001. All this is wonderfully validating for we Wikipedians, but it doesn’t mean we should rest on our laurels – and it certainly doesn’t mean that users should use it blindly. As an analyst I quoted in my last post on Wikipedia says “Wikipedia has turned into a relatively reliable source of information on the the widest possible range of subjects because, on the whole, the good drives out the bad.” But there is still “bad” there.

Here are some quick 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.

The thing is that despite these caveats, most Wikipedia articles, even the very minimal ones, have something to offer. I regularly go to Wikipedia to look for links to external sites. It is sometimes easier to find a person or organisation’s home page, a town’s tourist office, or some other authoritative source, on the Wikipedia article than via a search engine – particularly in those situations where search engines throw up commercial sites ahead of the more content-driven ones.

In other words, Wikipedia rocks – but especially so if you know how to roll with it.

6 thoughts on “Using Wikipedia

  1. This is excellent advice, and I am going to put a link to this blog post on my LisaHillSchoolStuff blog:).
    Tell me please, how do you do the footnotes to cite your sources?

    • Oh dear, Lisa, I’m glad I didn’t know you were going to do this before I wrote it! Then again – if I’d known I may not have done it. I’m glad though if it’s useful…some of it is standard stuff as you know but it’s useful to talk about it in relation to Wikipedia I think.

      Re footnotes. Do you mean what do you type to get the footnotes looking the way they do? If that’s what you mean let me know and I’ll send a more detailed email.

  2. Pingback: Using Wikipedia wisely « LisaHillSchoolStuff’s Weblog

  3. This is brilliant and so timely!

    A mere 18 months ago when I was a senior English teacher I absolutely hated the sheer ‘laziness’ of students constantly quoting Wikipedia as their sole reference, especially the ones doing the advanced extension English courses. There was so much other information that they could also check in books not online and older journal articles, also not archived online, or that our library didn’t have the electronic resources for (no matter how much I begged re their relevance).

    Since then, thanks to my online-savvy 28 yr old son, I’ve been absolutely convinced that Wiki is a fabulously peer-monitored site and likely to be highly reliable! He also suggested that I could fill in my own vast acres of retired time (!!!) checking out those entries where I have expertise and adding my own perspectives. Haven’t done so yet because I’m so frantic doing other exciting things but…The academic in me would now be happy for students to start there and then search elsewhere, even offline! The layperson that I am now would find it/does find it a marvelous place to puddle around in.

    Well done you for such a valuable, interesting post!

    • Thanks Steph (again). You may or may not have read my other Wikipedia post ( in which I describe a bit more my Wikipedia background. I’m glad you’ve come to appreciate it better! Though, as a librarian, I do understand and appreciate your hesitancy. Like any tool it has to be understood and used properly.

      I retired just over 2 years ago and decided that I wanted to do some of my own research and writing and thought Wikipedia might be a good place to hone some skills. Wikipedia has some rules: You can’t present an argument (but you can present opposing opinions) and you can’t do “original research” ie present a “new” opinion. But within that there’s a lot of scope. I started by editing and upgrading a few favourite Aussie writers – Kate Grenville, Elizabeth Jolley, Thea Astley – and I also tagged a lot of existing articles with the category “Australian women writers”. I then launched out into my own articles, the first one being a favourite documentary filmmaker, John Heyer. Most of my work though has been in Aussie lit. My first big Aussie lit article was, if I remember correctly, Marjorie Barnard.

      Anyhow. as a result, I kept myself away from the blogosphere fearing I would get hooked! And now see what’s happened! Somehow I got lured here – setting up a blog for my book group late last year and that led me to doing my own! We live in great times don’t we?

  4. Pingback: If you look up Wikipedia… « Whispering Gums

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