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Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that differs from other encyclopedias in a significant way: along with reading the articles in Wikipedia, anyone can add or edit articles however they like. The Wikipedia was created in 2001 and has since grown to be one of the largest sites on the web, passing one million entries in the English-language version of the encyclopedia in March of 2006. It is a collaborative effort with articles written by individuals from around the world using wiki software that allows content to be added or changed by anyone. As a result, Wikipedia is a dynamic work that is always growing, always changing.

Limitations and Advantages of Wikipedia

Many of the articles in Wikipedia are long and comprehensive, and many entries exist in Wikipedia for which no equivalent entry may be found in any other encyclopedia. As a result, it can be quite tempting for students to use the information found there in essays and lab reports. Those who would do so, however, are advised to use caution. While Wikipedia is without question a valuable and informative resource, there is an important concern to take into account when using it:

Because anyone can add or change content, there is an inherent lack of reliability and stability to Wikipedia. Authors of articles may not necessarily be experts on the topics they write about, leaving a lot of room for errors, misinformation, and bias.

The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, has recently stressed that Wikipedia may not be suitable for academic uses. "He wants to get the message out to college students that they shouldn’t use it for class projects or serious research." (from The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

While it is important to be aware of the limitations of Wikipedia, there are some advantages as well. It is easy to access and free. Articles are often added quickly and, as a result, coverage of current events and new technology can be quite extensive. It also can cover obscure topics, particulary in the arenas of entertainment and pop culture, better than many traditional library resources.

Appropriateness as a Source

When you conduct research for an assignment, it is important for you to understand the type and quality of resources required for the assignment. You should ask the question: "Is an encyclopedia, print or online, an appropriate source of information for this project?" Wikipedia may be an appropriate resource for some assignments, but not for others.

You may decide that the best use of Wikipedia might be as a starting point, gaining contextual information about a topic before moving on to more detailed or more reliable information sources. Suggested starting points for student research can be found in the library's Subject Research Guides.

As with any source of information, in print or on the web, students should evaluate the reliability of the source.

Citing Wikipedia

Wikipedia: Citing Wikipedia
Wikipedia provides a page informing its users how to cite its content using the following styles: APA (American Psychological Association), MLA (Modern Language Association), MHRA (Modern Humanities Research Association), Chicago Manual of Style, CBE/CSE (Council of Science Editors), Bluebook, BibTeX, and AMA (American Medical Association).

Further Information

"I Want My Wikipedia!"
by Barry X. Miller, Karl Helicher, & Teresa Berry; Library Journal
Three academic librarians evaluate the usefulness of Wikipedia's coverage of popular culture, current affairs, and science topics.

"Evaluating Web Pages: Questions to Ask and Techniques to Apply"
from the UC Berkeley - Teaching Library Internet Workshops
Librarians from the University of California Berkeley provide tips on evaluating the content of web resources.

"Internet Encyclopedias Go Head to Head"
by Jim Giles, Nature
A study conducted by Nature finds that Wikipedia is only slightly less accurate than the online Encyclopaedia Britannica, igniting a firestorm of controversy.

"Fatally Flawed" (PDF)
by Encylopaedia Britannica, Inc.
Encyclopaedia Britannica
responds point-by-point to Nature's study.

"Wikipedia Makes No Guarantee of Validity"
Wikipedia's disclaimer on the validity of its contents and links to the disclaimers of other online encyclopedias.

"Wikipedia: External Peer Review"
Wikipedia's own page on the Nature/Britannica controversy and other critical reviews of Wikipedia's content.

This page was adapted from a page at the Carleton College Gould Library: "Using Wikipedia"