No. Not a good idea. Nope. Just no.
Right, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me tell you how you CAN use Wikipedia when researching a paper, project or presentation.
Encyclopedias of one type or another have been relied upon for general information since at least the ancient world. From Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia from the 1st century CE, to Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Razi’s encyclopedia of science from the 10th century CE, to the 28,000 folio volumes of the Yongle Encyclopedia completed in China in 1408 CE, to the monumental French Encyclopédie published between 1751-1772 CE, to the encyclopedias of the 20th century CE like Britannica and World Book, repositories of general knowledge have been required as humans strive for understanding of the world.
If you’d like to learn more about the benefits and challenges of studying history, you can read more blog post on the topic here!
Now those of us of a certain age will remember the time before internet search engines, where we were taught that a starting point for our research paper was our school or local library’s encyclopedia collection. There we could find general information about our topics of choice, and then we would take that new knowledge to the card catalog or librarian to start looking for books on our topics. Now I clearly remember teachers explicitly telling me and my fellow students “Do not use the encyclopedia as one of your sources!” when we visited the school library to find sources for our papers. This, in my mind, echoes the teachers of today who frequently tell their students “Do not use Wikipedia as one of your sources!”. The difference though, as mentioned earlier, is that the teachers of my childhood would recommend we start with encyclopedias, especially when we knew little or nothing about our chosen topics. People today seem to automatically dismiss the usefulness of Wikipedia though, which I find short sighted. Of course a student should not cite Wikipedia, just like the students of the past were not allowed to cite print encyclopedias.
Wikipedia is the primary modern encyclopedia, and it has just as many flaws and biases as print encyclopedias of the past. Just like many book encyclopedias, Wikipedia has a severe lack of female editors or even pages about significant women of history or even present day. So saying that Wikipedia has sometimes inaccurate and biased information, while true, does not negate its usefulness since all other sources out there suffer from similar issues. The key is to teach students how to spot the biases, the exaggerations, the inaccuracies and then how to handle them. Teachers then need to remind students that it is not just print sources or articles from digital databases that have biased or imperfect information, it is also seemingly neutral sources like Wikipedia. A key aspect of the DBQ essay of the AP histories is to engage with the biases of the sources while making an argument. Asking questions like: Who is the audience for this source? What is the author’s purpose? What is the author’s background? What information are they potentially leaving out either consciously or unconsciously? Students are then taught to think about how the answers to these questions affect the sources’ information so that they can effectively qualify it and use it helpfully in their essay. Just because a source is biased or factually problematic does not mean it is not a useful source that should be ignored. Similarly, students should be taught that resources they use to get to source materials should be equally examined for bias and other issues. Thus, just because Wikipedia is also often biased or otherwise problematic it should not be ignored as a resource (NOT a source), since similar resources and actual sources themselves are just as biased.
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Despite bias, Wikipedia is a great starting place for research because it can help students find key search terms and even potential sources. Say a student wants to write a paper on the Sepoy Rebellion for their world history class, but while they know that it is an example of Indians (not Native Americans) resisting British imperialism sometime in the 1800s, they may not know much else. Going to Wikipedia will give them not only the exact date (1857 CE), but also information like other names for the rebellion including: the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Sepoy Mutiny, the Indian Mutiny, the Great Rebellion, the Revolt of 1857, the Indian Insurrection, and the First War of Independence. Therefore when they are searching for information in a digital database of academic articles or searching trusted historical websites, they will have other alternative terms to search and hopefully find more information. They will also find other specific information that they could use as search terms in more academic sources like the names of people involved (one of the most interesting being Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, a queen who is now a cultural figure of resistance to British rule), the exact regions that rebelled, the reasons for rebellion (more than just the British exploiting the Indian people), and beyond. Finally, Wikipedia often has references at the bottom of an article and even direct citations that students can then track down. Even if students cannot find the exact same sources that are listed in the article, they can at least get the names of scholars or authors who write on the topic the student has chosen, which can also help them when searching for source materials.
So Wikipedia, like any other encyclopedia, is a great starting point resource for students. It is certainly not a source, and should therefore not be cited, but it is a helpful resource.
For those of you wanting an overview of the Sepoy Rebellion along with lists of fascinating secondary and primary sources please see this Wikipedia article about it.
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