How to Use Wikipedia in Writing Your Academic Paper?

Updated: Nov 15, 2016

How to Use Wikipedia in Writing Your Academic Paper

Wikipedia is arguably world’s largest knowledge repository, with millions of entries on every thinkable subject. It is arranged in a quasi-scholarly manner and at first glance raises no doubt about the credibility and quality of the information. Many students take the information presented there at its face value and often get penalized by their teaching institutions.

The matter is that Wikipedia is called a ‘free encyclopedia’ meaning that anyone in the world can sit down at his or her own computer and contribute to the general body of information there. Here is what Wikipedia says about contributing articles to it: “Just about anyone can edit almost any article at any given time, even without logging in”. Consequently, the biggest problem with using this source is information credibility.

The credibility of information is one of the cornerstones of academic writing – every claim that is being made in an article needs to be backed up with an evidence. Such evidence, in turn, should rely on the research data obtained in the course of an academic inquiry that has to be realized according to fixed rules. Now, getting back to the ‘free encyclopedia’ there have been numerous cases when students got misguided by using information that was freely available online. As a result, teaching institutions have blacklisted this resource from credible sources of information, tagging it as ‘inappropriate for scholarly writing’. If your school hasn’t made an explicit ban on this source of information, most likely there is an unspoken agreement to avoid it, so double check on it before commencing your writing. The fact that Wiki has been banned from academia appears to be bad, yet everything is not as bad as it may seem.


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Know How to Use It: Look for Primary Sources

Just like about a ‘regular’ encyclopedia, Wiki attempts to back up its claims with references for greater credibility. The vast majority of articles there contain a special “References” section that is quite similar to the “References” page of any scholarly entry. However, unlike a recognized scholarly source of information, the “References” section of the ‘free encyclopedia’ contains references to various sources of information, including both scholarly books (articles, research etc) and less reputable sources like blogs, websites, forums etc. While doing preliminary research for your assignment, you should be able to easily collect some primary data by just looking at the “References” section of Wiki. It will most likely give you a good list of primary sources to work with.

Primary sources – are those sources of information that contain results of the actual research, and usually contain all attributes of a scholarly piece of writing, including abstract, literature review, methods, results, discussion etc. This is the kind of information you should be looking at – open the references and look at their abstracts to determine whether they meet your needs.  Once you find what you need, you should take a look at the “References” section of the article you are interested in and try to look them up online. It will be the second iteration of the reference analysis in your paper that will give you the information you will need for writing your paper. It often happens the references are made in text format as opposed to the convenient hypertext format. In that case, go ahead and copy such information as the name of the author, date and name of the publication and try to search it online. Chances are – in 8 cases out of 10 you will find the article you need.

How to Cite Wikipedia

If you are writing a scholarly paper, you are not allowed to cite Wikipedia – full stop. The trick to citing this information is citing the actual primary source of information, but not the Wikipedia entry itself. For example, if you are writing about Diabetes Mellitus and need to mention the role of Statin as the trigger of Diabetes, go ahead and select the reference that stands next to the word “Statins” – you will see it has a reference to a piece of research by Sattar, Price et al. (2010). By doing so you are backing all your claims with references to reliable sources of information.

The free online encyclopedia is a reliable source of secondary information and should be avoided in your academic writing. It can be of tremendous help when you are doing some preliminary research and are looking for research results and scholarly investigations that scholars did earlier. By simply looking at the references section of the Wiki article, you will be able to get a good number of reliable ‘first hand’ information with consistent results and credible authors. Citing Wikipedia directly is not allowed, however citing primary sources is a nice workaround that will cause no objections.

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