Researching with Wikipedia

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Wikipedia is a great repository of information, but it can also be inaccurate due to its reliance on the public to keep entries accurate and up-to-date. I argued this recently when some friends and I were discussing turtles as pets and the fact they live long lives. You see, my father raises turtles and is constantly teasing me about the fact that I will someday inherit a bunch of turtles from him. Yet, my friends didn't believe that a common box turtle could live 40 years. They decided to jump on the Internet to find the truth. They immediately pulled up Wikipedia only to hear me scream "Just because it's on Wikipedia doesn't mean it's true!" Ironically, Wikipedia agreed with me and I felt vindicated by the site I had just argued against. The next day I found my foot placed firmly in my mouth. Why? Well, I needed the answer to something for work, and my first instinct was to check on Wikipedia. I quickly realized how often I utilize the site to refresh my memory on certain facts.

Once I realized my hypocrisy, I decided it was time to figure out how best to use Wikipedia without worrying about inaccurate information. I think consulting Wikipedia for a quick answer to something is fine and good, but when researching a paper, you can't rely on the resource. Most teachers and parents refuse to allow Wikipedia as a source.

So how do you use Wikipedia without getting in trouble? The key is to remember not to use it as a primary source. Instead, use it to find your primary sources. Most Wikipedia articles end with a list of references. These links often contain the firsthand information you need. However, you should always check the reliability of these links. Like most of the web, they can be inaccurate, biased, or not trustworthy enough to use as a source.

Another way to make Wikipedia work for you is to find other possible key words. Due to the large number of authors that contribute to Wikipedia, it's likely you'll find highly relevant key words within an article. This can help you expand your search if you find different terminology from what you were using in your research.

If in doubt, check the History and Discussion tabs at the top of each Wikipedia entry. The History tab contains a wealth of information about how often and by whom the page has been updated. The Discussion tab, however, may be my favorite. This page allows contributors to discuss and debate issues connected with a particular topic. You can find which facts are in contention and sometimes learn a bit about an author's reliability.

Wikipedia is a truly powerful resource. In a sense, it's comparable to an encyclopedia that is constantly being updated. However, like an encyclopedia, it should be used as a starting point for research, not an ending point.

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This page contains a single entry by April Stockwell published on December 1, 2010 11:52 AM.

Geometry - Measuring and Constructing Angles was the previous entry in this blog.

Geometry - Congruent Triangles is the next entry in this blog.

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