The crowd-sourced site Wikipedia has long been bemoaned by the academic community as an unreliable source for student research. Some educators, however, have embraced the site—not only for pointing students in the direction of quality information, but also for teaching information literacy skills.
The fact that Wikipedia is built on a wiki platform (a site that can be edited by anyone at any time) has called into question the accuracy of the information it provides. For example, there are stories of celebrities and prominent political figures keeping close tabs on the Wikipedia pages detailing their careers, as critics of these individuals have been known to change the content on the pages.
Despite the pitfalls of Wikipedia’s potential inaccuracies, when it comes to conducting research and building Internet and information literacy, the site can be a gold mine. The following student rules will help you guide kids in properly navigating this vast resource. Discuss the rules, and the rationale behind them, before students begin working on a research paper or presentation.
You also may wish to discuss and define the following terms for students: crowd-sourced, open source, wiki, citation, plagiarism, information/Web/online literacy. A great overview handout for older students is 7 Things You Should Know About Wikipedia.
Don’t use Wikipedia simply because it’s listed first. Wikipedia is often the first result that comes up in a Web search. A Web site’s popularity and size—and not necessarily its quality—are big factors that help determine how high up in the list it appears. Make sure to explore at least the first several links returned by search results, so that you can determine the credibility and usefulness of each.
Don’t cite Wikipedia. You never know who has edited what, and when, so just avoid doing this altogether. Even Wikipedia itself cautions against this: see Wikipedia FAQs for Schools.
Take the extra step. With that said, every page in the enormous vault that is Wikipedia contains citations, references and other qualifying sources that can be used freely and with confidence. Most, if not all, Wikipedia citations include hyperlinks to the original content. Taking the time to make that extra click will pay off with a visit to a source that isn’t Wikipedia.
Know your source. Just because you’ve left Wikipedia doesn’t mean that you can blindly trust a new source. Wikipedia editors have been known to link to some pretty dodgy sites. Take a look at the URL box in your browser. If it begins with something like “Yale.edu” or “CNN.com,” you can cite the source with confidence. If, however, you happen upon a site that begins with “StevesNewsOfTheWeird.com,” it’s a safe bet the information isn’t very credible. For more tips on judging the quality of online information, see Fact, Fiction or Opinion? Evaluating Online Information. For descriptions of other online research resources, see You’ve Been Cited: Valid Internet Sources for Student Research.
Get to the library. It can be all too easy to simply cull everything you want from the Internet, but just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s the best source. Wikipedia, in addition to hyperlinked citations, offers bibliographies with many of its pages. These contain book titles, authors, publishers, publication dates and ISBN numbers. All of this information enables you to locate the source book.
Use the footnotes. Wikipedia footnotes are not found on every entry; they do, however, appear on most academic entries. The footnotes operate like citations—a hyperlinked notation on the page directs the user to an original source. Footnotes tend to be more reliable than regular Wikipedia citations, but a discerning eye is still required before settling on a source.
When you’re ready to cite, do so carefully. So Wikipedia has pointed you to a reliable online or print source—what next? Make sure to cite properly and avoid plagiarism. For tips, explore the resource Put an End to Plagiarism in Your Classroom. Also, be sure to check out How to Cite Electronic Resources.
The key to using Wikipedia for academic research is to change students’ perceptions—despite its name and structure, it is not an encyclopedia. Rather, it is a collection of information from tons of sources that must be sifted through before using. Wikipedia’s handiness lies in its ability to collect all of this information and present it by topic. The onus is on the user to determine which of the sources Wikipedia presents are worthy of citation.
Have older students fact-check a Wikipedia page by comparing it to its cited sources as well as other sources. They should note any inaccuracies or areas that could be improved. Set up a Wikipedia login for the class, keeping in mind that when using an open-source site, you will need to take Internet safety precautions very seriously. Ask kids to edit the page to make corrections and enhancements, including appropriate citations. This can be a powerful activity for teaching information literacy lessons about citations, plagiarism, Internet safety and judging the quality/reliability of online content.