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Why Wikipedia Gets a Bad Rap

January 20, 2022 - 4 minute read

A Wikipedia article is always the first to shoot up its hand with the answer when you search a question or a term on Google. Unfortunately, you and I know that we always have to scroll past it. Or do we? Wikipedia articles are fantastic for students. Most of them are relatively easy to read, they include a broad range of general information on almost every topic, and they’re free to access! The idea that Wikipedia is off-limits for students is a common misconception, and I’m here to tell you 1) how that misconception came about, 2) why it’s incorrect, and 3) how you can use Wikipedia for your research.

1. The misconception. Wikipedia was begun as part of a movement to make knowledge more accessible to the general public. Most other journals and encyclopedias require a paid subscription to read, but Wikipedia articles are free. In order for it to be a sustainable program, the labor for producing Wikipedia’s articles also had to be free. Volunteers write, rewrite, monitor, edit, and share articles as a collaborative effort. This is probably the reason you (along with the general public) think Wikipedia is off-limits when it comes to serious research. If anyone can edit an article, who’s to say they’re giving you the right information?

2. The mistake. In a 2005 study, Jim Giles found that Wikipedia articles had only one more inaccuracy per article than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, out of 42 evaluated science articles. This shows that Wikipedia has comparable accuracy to one of the most prestigious encyclopedias. As Jemielniak Dariusz argues, Frequent freelance editing from anyone means that inaccuracies are quickly found and easily corrected – much more easily than for a formally established encyclopedia. So, if Wikipedia is a credible source, why shouldn’t students use it for their research?

Some risks associated with using Wikipedia are bias, readability, and plagiarism. Each author of an article has a different agenda in mind as they write, and they write with varying degrees of clarity, which can affect how easily people understand the information. By some twist of fate (probably related to its ease of access), it fell to Wikipedia to be one of the most frequently plagiarized sources by students, so academics have developed a certain personal sense of animosity towards it. But, that isn’t Wikipedia’s fault, and these risks are associated with any source of information.

Actually, one common reason that professors ask you to exclude Wikipedia from your references page is that it is universally frowned upon to cite any encyclopedia in a research paper. Professors want students to gather and analyze narrow, specific, relevant information about their topics. Encyclopedias, including Wikipedia, are really only good for learning general information. 

3. Mastering Wikipedia. Precisely because of its generalized information, though, Wikipedia can still serve you well. You can (and should!) use Wikipedia in prewriting stages to solidify your basic understanding of your subject. Wikipedia articles can also be a great resource for you to find subtopics to research in specific later. For example, in some of my recent research, I started researching by reading a Wikipedia biography of the author I had to write about. Since the article gave a broad overview of the author’s life, I had my choice of several directions in which I could go to narrow my research. I ended up clicking on some cross-referenced links to read about the philosophers that influenced that author, and focusing my essay around the author’s use of their ideas. Think of it as if the Wikipedia article is a signpost with many arrows – not there to confuse you, but to give you options!

Once you’ve found some specific topics to explore more deeply, Wikipedia’s citations with hyperlinks at the bottom of every article can fast-track you to those academic research articles that your professors want you to use. Ingrid Beckman, a previous Writing Studio consultant, has written a separate Voice Paint article on how to use these hyperlinks.

Wikipedia has an unjustified bad reputation – its information is more reliable than you might think. But since the academic world at large is unlikely to change its opinion just because some of us have figured that out, and since Wikipedia is too general for the type of research you need to write well, don’t use it as a primary source of information for your research projects. Instead, read the Wikipedia article on your subject to learn the basics as preliminary research. Find subtopics within the article to hunt down more information on at the library or in databases. Snatch those hyperlinks that are there for your benefit! Then go forth with your good ideas. Research well, and write well.


Livia Swan is from just about everywhere, but she spent most of her childhood in Singapore. She is studying to be a Spanish teacher because she loves language – that’s also why she’s at the Writing Studio. There are a multitude of ways to use words to articulate one idea, even just within English. She is excited to read your ideas and help you represent your mind on the page so that your reader understands exactly the same thought that you mean to write down. When she’s not writing or reading (which, to be honest, isn’t very often), she’s baking or knitting or otherwise behaving like a grandma, and spending time with her best friends. She can’t wait to meet you! She’d love to learn how you use words and help you use them well.

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