Tag Archives: wikipedia

Researching with Wikipedia

Heh, don’t have a heart attack.  Wikipedia is great for research, but not in the way you’re thinking.  I use it all the time, yet rarely read the actual entry.

No, you can’t take anything you read there as authoritative.  However, you can see where it sends you.  Check the links, source notes, and all that stuff.  Armed thus, you can investigate those and make up your own mind about their reliability.  Website of some Holocaust denial maven? That’s a distrustin’.  Article by amateur historian? Better, if not fully authoritative.  Peer-reviewed article by expert, from whom further research indicates no predilection or motivation for bias? That’s pretty good.

The other benefit of Wikipedia is that it will at least alert you to high points of a subject for further study.  Reading about an event in its Wiki entry, you may believe nothing the author says, but you at least gain some idea of the main points of controversy.  Thus, if researching the Boston Tea Party, you would not let Wiki decide for you what its real motivations were–but you’d at least get a sense of how some construe the motivations, and from there, you could do some more substantive discovery and deciding.

I realize it’s un-AC (academically correct) to say anything about Wikipedia that doesn’t trash it, but in the editing process, I use it all the time. Suppose a client makes a reference to something I’ve never heard of. Unless it’s a proper noun, there exist a fair number of self-described editors who simply run spellcheck and grammar check, then ask to be paid. If the writer used an arcane term, too bad–they’ll just let the software change it. Laugh if you will, but I have seen the outcome. A competent editor looks up any word or term s/he does not understand; how can one evaluate its use if one does not know what it means? I wouldn’t use Wiki as my definitive source, but as a quick way to follow along with my client, it definitely has its niche.