When I first started college, there was no wikipedia (yes, I did just date myself), and professors were still adapting to the existence of the internet. Today, they’re adapting to ubiquity of the internet and the ease of access. Nowhere is this more obvious than in their hesitation to accept wikipedia.
I will admit that not all articles on wikipedia are rigorously reviewed or accurate. Worse, once you leave wikipedia.com and wander into other wiki-type sites, you find sites that have smaller populations to monitor content and thus correct mistakes. These mistakes are why professors are hesitant to accept wikipedia as resources for academic papers.
I am, however, unwilling to reject wikipedia entirely, so this is my guide to intelligent use of wikipedia in academia. Please note that if your professor tells you not to use wikipedia as a source, you should treat these tips the way you would any other search engine – uncited. If, however, your instructor is willing to accept a wiki source, you might try printing out your article (or grabbing a pdf copy at the time you access it so that there’s no concern about later edits), then go ahead and cite away.
I’ve not had instructors willing to accept wikipedia entries, but that hasn’t stopped me from using them the same way I use search engines. In fact, unlike many search engines, wiki has an advantage – it gathers useful information in a single location and then provides citations for that information. Following the links to those external sources is the way to use wikipedia as a source and still keep your professors happy.
Let’s look at two different examples.
This first picture is the wikipedia entry for Pseudomonas pseudoalcaligenes, the bacteria isolated in the petri plate in my avatar. As you can see, there’s not much information, but there are a lot of links to follow out, so once I go to this one page, it becomes much easier to find other, more authoritative sites from this one. Further, among those references are peer-reviewed articles: the fact that the link starts “doi” is a giveaway that they come from sources every professor will accept.
Next is another wikipedia entry, this time, for “Gram negative”. I got here just by following the link in the first article. Look at how much more detailed this article is: pictures, drawings, sections dividing the information. Note, too, that there’s a section that’s been flagged for review. Wikipedia isn’t a perfect source, and I’m not trying to suggest that it is: this should never be a final source for information. But there is a wealth of information here that you can mine, links to follow out to sources that you can consider adequately authoritative to cite.
This actually brings me to an important point, one that I don’t think many professors stress enough when they make a blanket ban on information sources. In science classes especially, you’ll hear your professors stress the importance of critical thinking and applying what you learn over rote memorization. It’s the difference between knowing that gram positive cells stain violet, and understanding that they stain violet because their cell walls are thicker and thus retain more of the violet dye. It’s comprehension.
That comprehension, application, and critical thinking also allows you to look at your sources and decide if they are acceptable or not. That’s the sort of skill that your professors are looking for when they assign those sorts of papers, and when they ban an entire source of information, the question becomes if they find the information that unreliable or your skills that untested. My guess is that it is a combination of both. However, until we, as a student body, can demonstrate that we are capable of discerning useful information from junk, then sites like wikipedia will continue to languish, unheeded and ignored, or at best, as search engines.
So ask yourself: What am I looking for? Will this answer my questions? Can I find the answer to my questions by following the links provided? Are these sources reliable? Does this make sense? And the most important question, the one that all that makes a scientist: Why?