Why Wikipedia is useless – and useful!

If you’re a student, you’ve probably heard a few (if not all) of your teachers say you are not allowed to use Wikipedia pages as references for your essays. There is a good reason for this – Wikipedia is written by “the general public”. You don’t have to be an expert to write an article for it, and have that article published. Consequently, although many, many articles in Wikipedia are well-researched and written by people who really do know what they’re talking about, a lot of others aren’t. Some pages are deliberately erroneous!

Also, anyone who signs up can log in and change article information. You can see why this leads to the website (known as the free encyclopedia) is considered by many to be a bad source for things like academic essays or serious research. At the present time, Wikipedia has over 3,600,000 articles in it, not to mention the various offshoots such as the Wikis people create on certain topics. If you want to know more about how it all works, you can check it out on their About page.

So for a lot of people, that makes Wikipedia useless. Why then do I say it’s also useful? For a number of reasons:

* if you know nothing at all about the topic, it can also be useful to get a plainly-written (usually) overview to get you started

* it can be a good jumping off point – read the article there on your topic and gather a whole bunch of search terms so you can go elsewhere on the net and find more reputable sites

* it has links within each article to other aspects covered in separate articles, so you can do some sideways research to get a better grip on your subject

* the things I find it most useful for (if they’re done well) are the Notes and Bibliography at the bottom, where a good writer/researcher will list all the sources they have used in the writing of their article.

Bonnet woodcut For instance, a few years ago I looked up Stede Bonnet on Wikipedia (he was a pirate in the 1700s and features in a historical novel I have written). What was there was quite short back then, and contained errors. I’d already done plenty of research on Bonnet so I knew. About six months ago, I went back to the page because it came up in a web search I was doing.

I was surprised to see how expanded the article was, and mostly corrected. But the best part was that in the Notes and Bibliography, I found two new sources I wasn’t aware of – two books that had been published recently which gave me new information I could use. Of course, a good Bibliography will also signal to you that this particular articles is much more likely to be correct and useful (but your teacher still won’t let you use it!).

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