Wikipedia: A User's Guide

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If you’re a person on the internet, chances are you’ve used Wikipedia. And if you’re a student, chances are at least one of your teachers has warned you not to use it, perhaps mentioning that anyone can edit it or that it’s not a trusted source. Your teachers are right. But you can still use Wikipedia as a strong resource for researching and writing. You just have to be smart about it.

Wikipedia is a free, online encyclopedia, created and edited by a wide array of volunteers and hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to providing essential infrastructure for free knowledge. Wikipedia was created in 2001 by founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger and offers articles in 300+ languages.

You’ll find more than 1,000,000 articles in languages like English, German, Italian, Japanese, and Russian. On the other end of the spectrum, Wikipedia offers just a few hundred articles in languages like Pontic Greek, Akan (a language spoken in today’s Ghana), and Cree (a North American Aboriginal language spoken by around 117,000 people across Canada).

In all likelihood, Wikipedia will show up in most of your searches. Whether you’re searching for George Washington’s birth date, how many people live in your hometown, or when a university was founded, Wikipedia articles are highly ranking, and often even show up in their own sidebars. With information so readily available from Wikipedia, it’s hard not to use it. This article will walk you through using Wikipedia to your advantage. It can be a wonderful tool, but you must use it wisely, or the free encyclopedia might land you in trouble with your teachers.

Below we’ve put together three sections to answer all of your Wikipedia questions. Read on to learn about:

 Anatomy of a Wikipedia Page

Search Bar

At the top of every Wikipedia article is a search bar that gives you the option to “Search Wikipedia.” This feature is helpful if you’re quickly moving from page to page in your research, or if you’re just ready to move on to the next thing. The Search Bar has an autofill feature, suggesting articles as you type. If nothing comes up that matches what you’re searching for, you may be out of luck. An article on that topic may not exist. In that case, the search engine will take you to articles that contain the words you typed into the Search Bar.

Title

This might be self-explanatory, but each Wikipedia article has a title. The title is at the top of the article and may include clarifying information in parentheses. For example, there are articles for Mary (Nabokov novel), Mary (elephant), and Mary (Mary J. Blige album). In this case, the parentheses are quite important for ensuring readers don’t mix up their Russian literature, circus animals, and R&B albums.

Pronunciation

Not all Wikipedia pages include pronunciation recordings, but many of them do. If you aren’t sure about how to pronounce Deutsche Bank, Amherst, Massachusetts, or “Dalek” from BBC’s TV series, Doctor Who, Wikipedia has a recording to help.

Introduction

Each Wikipedia article includes an introduction. The intro for an article usually includes a definition or sentence-long description of the article’s subject. The intro may include key dates, pertinent facts, or a brief overview of the subject.

Contents

Following the introduction, each article includes a Contents section that outlines the remainder of the article. You can choose to view or hide the contents section, which includes hyperlinks to each section of the article.

Highlights

Most Wikipedia entries include a highlights bar to the right of the article. This section of a Wikipedia page usually includes a photo, important dates, links, and readily available statistics, like population, age, years active, net worth, etc. Typically information in the Highlights section of an article is reliable, but it’s important to realize that, like the rest of any Wikipedia article, an article’s Highlights can be edited by anyone, and thus fact checking is key.

Images, Audio Files, Tables, etc.

Though the graphics and audio included on a Wikipedia page vary from article to article, most include some images, audio files, tables, maps, graphs, etc. These audiovisual resources usually include a citation link. If you choose to use them, be sure to cite the original source, not the Wikipedia article.

Links

If you scroll through a Wikipedia article, you’ll see lots of blue links. These links lead to other articles related to the topic you’re reading about. For example, Donald Trump’s Wikipedia page links to articles about the President of the United States, The Apprentice, Twitter, and Vladimir Putin.

Notes

At the end of each Wikipedia page, you’ll find a Notes section. The Notes for an article include additional or clarifying information. Notes are different from References (see below) in that they give more information about something mentioned in the article, rather than citation information. In fact, some notes have their own Reference listings, citing where the information in a note came from.

References

The References for a Wikipedia article are similar to a Works Cited or References page in a MLA- or APA-formatted paper, essay, or article. Here, you’ll find links to the source for facts, statements, and quotes from the Wikipedia article. Most References link to the original source material, with some even taking you to a Google Books page containing the cited text.

Bibliography or Further Reading

Many pages include either (or both) a Bibliography or a Further Reading section. This part of a Wikipedia article links to other books, articles, or information that might be relevant to your research.

External Links

The External Links section of a Wikipedia article is another place to go for more information. Many articles include links to sites other than Wikipedia, such as an author’s website, a government’s home page, or a celebrity’s Instagram account.

Wrap-Up and Related Topics

Similar to the Highlights bar at the top right of a Wikipedia article, you’ll find a Wrap-Up/Related Topics section at the end of most pages. Usually a series of purple bars, this section of a page includes several divisions summarizing information and links to related topics and Wikipedia articles.

Date Edited

At the bottom of any Wikipedia article, you can view the date an article was last edited. The date is listed in the following format: Day Month Year, at Hour:Minutes (UTC).

Read

When you pull up a Wikipedia article, typically you are viewing the page from Read mode. This allows you to read and interact with links in an article written by Wikipedia contributors. For most of us, this is the only way we use Wikipedia. The option to enter Read mode is usually in the top right, next to the Search Bar.

Edit/View Source

Next to the option for viewing an article in Read mode, you can also select to either Edit or View Source. The Edit page is available for some articles and allows you to edit the page. If you are not logged in, your device’s IP address will be visible in connection with the edits you make; if you are logged in, your edits will show up under your username. For some articles with more restrictive editing policies, the button next to Read will say View Source. This means you may not be allowed to edit the article, but you can view the source code and material for the page. If you would like to learn more about editing Wikipedia articles as a contributor, the site includes a tutorial, massive manual, and an interactive game that teaches you how to edit articles.

View History

This is another useful way to take a peek under the hood of a Wikipedia article. The View History section of a page allows you to view the edit-history of the article you’re reading. This can be an interesting way to further investigate a topic and can highlight controversies surrounding the topic or ways an article has changed over time.

Article/Talk

Also at the top of a Wikipedia article, but to the left side, is the option to toggle between Article mode and Talk mode. Article is where you’ll spend most of your time, and is probably the type of Wikipedia page that you’ve seen most often. Talk is another behind-the-scenes area of an article, one that allows you to view comments about the article from contributors.

Sidebar (about, store, donate, tools, etc.)

To the left of the article, underneath the Wikipedia logo, you’ll find links to various parts of the site, including an about page; the Wikipedia store where you can buy items like shirts, mugs, and pencils; an option to donate to Wikipedia; and various editing and navigation tools.

 10 Keys to Using Wikipedia for Academic Research

Here are ten rules to follow when using Wikipedia to research a paper or project. Follow these steps and you will stay on your teacher’s good side, avoid trouble with plagiarism or false facts, and likely create “A+” work...or at least “A+” research. Your writing skills are another topic.

(If you want help with your writing, check out our Writing Lab: How to Research, Write, and Edit Your College Papers and Essays.)

1. Know Your Source

You likely realize this if you’ve read the first section of this article, but in case you skipped to this section, or you just need another reminder: anyone can edit Wikipedia articles. This makes the site an unreliable primary source. In fact, a Wikipedia article about, well...Wikipedia, states that “We do not expect you to trust us.” The article states:

“It is in the nature of an open collaboration and work-in-progress like Wikipedia that quality may vary over time, and from article to article. While some articles are of the highest quality of scholarship, others are admittedly complete rubbish. Also, since Wikipedia can be edited by anyone at any time, articles may be prone to errors, including vandalism so Wikipedia is not a reliable source. So please do not use Wikipedia to make critical decisions. This encyclopedia is especially useful for improving familiarity with a subject and its jargon, and for learning search terms with which to further explore a subject beyond Wikipedia. Helpful external links are also provided to assist you in learning more.”

Your teachers probably consider the information you include in a research project to be “a critical decision.” So you’ve heard it from the source: some Wikipedia articles are rubbish. Know the source you’re using, and recognize Wikipedia for what it is.

2. Start Here…And Then Keep Going

While Wikipedia is a great place to start, and usually among the first of your internet search results, it’s important to use it as a jumping off point. Don’t be afraid to start with Wikipedia, but continue your research from trustworthy primary sources, perhaps ones you’ve found through the References section of a Wikipedia article.

3. Use the Contents Section

Whether you’re an online college student or you’re studying on campus, you’re always busy. Your time is valuable, and it’s important to use it wisely. It can be tempting to skip Wikipedia since it’s not a trustworthy source. After all, why would you want to read a Wikipedia article, and then go read the exact same thing somewhere else? True, but if you learn how to quickly, efficiently skim a Wikipedia article, you’ll save valuable time. This could put you on track to begin reading, writing about, and citing trustworthy sources before you know it. To get to the heart of a Wikipedia article, jump right into the Contents section and find exactly what you’re looking for.

4. Use the References Section

Likewise, skipping down to the References section of a Wikipedia page can lead you to valuable, trustworthy primary sources. If you are already familiar with a topic, try jumping straight to the References section to look for books, articles, websites, and other resources that you can confidently cite in your project.

5. Watch for Warnings

Some Wikipedia articles include a warning at the top of the page, letting you know that the information in that piece may not be reliable. If you see one of these warnings, take heed, and be sure to carefully double check anything that you read on that page.

6. Fact Check

No matter what, fact check the information that you find on a Wikipedia page. If you can find the information in a couple of other places, it’s probably safe to use. Be sure to always follow your teacher’s style and citation guidelines above all else when working on a project for that teacher. That said, it’s usually the case that you don’t need to cite information that counts as common knowledge, meaning that it can be found in a significant number of sources and is not controversial. So if you use Wikipedia to look up a date, name, or other piece of commonly-known information, you don’t need to include a citation, but it never hurts to double check this information from a more reliable source.

7. Know the Difference Between Facts and Opinions

In any sort of research, it’s important to know the difference between facts and opinions. But this is especially important when using Wikipedia. A Wikipedia article might contain both facts and opinions, and it’s important to be able to tell the difference so that you can write and cite accordingly. A fact is a piece of common knowledge that cannot be disputed, and an opinion is a specific view, judgment, or belief.

8. Don’t Plagiarize

If you’re in college or graduate school, chances are you’ve heard this before, but it always bears repeating: don’t plagiarize. Plagiarizing, or passing off another source’s ideas or words as your own, can happen with Wikipedia just as it can with any other source. Do not directly copy and paste from Wikipedia into your paper or project. Plagiarism on the college or university campus can result in harsh punishment, including academic probation and dismissal from school. If you’re not sure what counts as plagiarism, talk to your instructor or professor. If you’re not clear on the rules, it’s always best to ask.

9. Don’t Cite Wikipedia…Cite the Original Source

If your teacher has told you not to use Wikipedia, you can still smartly, safely get away with doing so. But this step is critically important: do not cite Wikipedia in your paper or project. Use the References section to find the original source, fact check to be sure the source is accurate and trustworthy, and then cite the original source. Not that we’re telling you to go against your teacher’s advice, but if you use Wikipedia as a research tool and jumping-off point while making sure to cite the original sources for information used in your project, you should be safe and graded accordingly.

10. Pay Attention

This is another rule that applies to all good research, but it’s especially crucial when using Wikipedia to pay attention. If something sounds fishy, inaccurate, or just weird, there’s a good chance it is. If you’re reading carefully, paying attention, and using Wikipedia mindfully, you will effectively use the site as a research tool. If you zone out and pull information from Wikipedia without thinking, you’re likely to get into trouble and write a paper full of the “rubbish” that Wikipedia acknowledges, does, unfortunately, exist in their encyclopedia.

 Wikipedia’s Sister Projects

Wikipedia is the most common project from the Wikimedia Foundation, but the organization also sponsors several sister projects that might be helpful in your life, schoolwork, and research.

Commons: Wikimedia Commons is a site that contains a variety of free-use images, sounds, and other media files. If you’re looking for an image to use in a presentation, a graphic for a website, or a sound file for a video, Commons is a great place to search. Each file includes information about how you can legally use it.

Wikibooks: The tagline for Wikibooks is “Open books for an open world.” This project includes an ever-growing library of free e-book textbooks and annotated texts that anyone can edit. The site includes a variety of textbooks, children’s books, recipes, and more.

Wikiquote: Wikiquote is a compendium of quotations from various people, books, and other sources. The project includes quotes in a variety of languages, and typically includes sources for quotes. This can be a great place to find quotes from famous people or works, but be careful to fact check the quotations, ensuring that the person or work you’re quoting actually said whatever Wikiquotes claims they said.

Wikiversity: Wikiversity offers slightly different content than many of the projects on this list. This Wikimedia Foundation project offers a variety of tutorials and courses for use in all types, levels, and styles of education. Wikiversity can be a great place to pick up random knowledge (try this quiz about Geochronology!), or brush up on a useful skill (check out this course, Introduction to Computers).

Wiktionary: Wiktionary is a multi-lingual dictionary project that’s working to include all words in all languages. This is a helpful place to look up a word in your own language, or in another!

Hopefully this user’s guide helps you navigate the vast, sometimes scary, sometimes shady world of Wikipedia. Wikipedia, if used correctly, can be a powerful research tool. If your teachers are still convinced you should never-ever-ever use the web-based encyclopedia for any sort of research, show them this article. We think it will convince them, and if not, your well-researched, “A+” papers and projects will!

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