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Using Wikipedia Wisely

An introduction to Wikipedia and to strategies for evaluating Wikipedia articles

Using Wikipedia: Introduction

Most of us probably use Wikipedia regularly, but you've probably been told more than once not to use Wikipedia because anyone can edit it and it therefore isn’t a reliable source. But if you have a basic understanding of Wikipedia's processes and policies and apply critical thinking to evaluating Wikipedia content, Wikipedia can be a valuable resource.

This guide is a starting point for:

  • understanding Wikipedia as an information source, including the values, principles, and practices to which the Wikipedia Foundation aspires),
  • considering advantages and limitations of Wikipedia, and
  • strengthening your skills in evaluating the credibility of individual Wikipedia articles and reflecting on how to use Wikipedia wisely for their own research and information needs.

For a quick introduction to using Wikipedia, check out this short video "Using Wikipedia Wisely" (from Civic Online Reasoning).

Wikipedia as an Information Source: An Overview

Wikipedia is a living resource, being changed continually. The Listen to Wikipedia site illustrates this musically. As you learn more about Wikipedia and its guidelines and processes, you might consider the advantages and disadvantages of a globally crowdsourced resource like this

The video below, "Using Wikipedia: Crash Course Navigating Digital Information #5," is a good introduction to Wikipedia's history, evolution, and practices and processes. This context can help you evaluate any Wikipedia article more critically.

Wikipedia's Five Pillars

Wikipedia's "Five Pillars" describe the principles to which Wikipedia aspires. The language below is taken from the Wikipedia: Five pillars page., where you can read more detailed explanations of each pillar.

  • Wikipedia is an encyclopedia
  • Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view
  • Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute
  • Wikipedia's editors should treat each other with respect and civility
  • Wikipedia has no firm rules

Wikipedia's Core Content Policies

The processes that Wikipedia aspires to are reflected in its three core content policies. The language below is taken from the page Wikipedia: Core content policies.

"Wikipedia's content is governed by three principal core content policiesneutral point of viewverifiability, and no original research. Editors should familiarize themselves with all three, jointly interpreted:

  1. Neutral point of view (WP:NPOV) – All Wikipedia articles and other encyclopedic content must be written from a neutral point of view, representing significant views fairly, proportionately and without bias.
  2. Verifiability (WP:V) – Material challenged or likely to be challenged, and all quotations, must be attributed to a reliable, published source. In Wikipedia, verifiability means that people reading and editing the encyclopedia can check that information comes from a reliable source.
  3. No original research (WP:NOR) – Wikipedia does not publish original thought: all material in Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable, published source. Articles may not contain any new analysis or synthesis of published material that serves to advance a position not clearly advanced by the sources.

"These policies determine the type and quality of material that is acceptable in Wikipedia articles. Because they complement each other, they should not be interpreted in isolation from one another. The principles upon which these policy statements are based are not superseded by other policies or guidelines, or by editors' consensus. These three policy pages may be edited only to improve the application and explanation of the principles."

Closing Points to Consider

  • Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, a type of reference source. Reference sources provide general background information, or common knowledge. Reference sources are intended to center on facts, and not on argumentation. Though it's still possible for a Wikipedia article (or other encyclopedia article) to reflect certain biases, Wikipedia's Five Pillars and Core Content Policies are intended to minimize bias.

  • One of the greatest strengths of Wikipedia are the references provided at the end of articles. Of course, you’ll want to evaluate the credibility of those references as you consider how much you trust those references and how you will/won’t use them.

  • Wikipedia is crowdsourced. While anyone with Internet access can contribute to it, Wikipedia has certain principles and has established practices and processes that help to ensure that Wikipedia is overall a credible information source. (e.g., Wikipedia pages for heavily debated topics or for well known individuals usually have an assigned level of protection, so that not just anyone can change those pages without a reasonable amount of oversight)

  • Wikipedia is huge; it contains a vast number of articles. The degree to which an article is developed varies; longer and more developed articles tend to be more authoritative than short articles.

  • To see how an article has developed over time, see the Talk and History pages.

  • Wikipedia has extensive documentation and guidelines to help content creators develop new content and improve already existing content. You can get a better sense of the many guidelines that are in place by reviewing, for example, the Wikipedia: Template index/Maintenance page.

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