Using WikiPedia as a Research Tool

I write on a wide variety of topics for HubPages. Among these topics are Hubs on economics and history.

While I have undergraduate degrees in both history and economics and a graduate degree in economics I often find myself doing considerable research for these and other Hubs that I write as, despite considerable knowledge in these areas, most of my Hubs are on niche areas of these topics for which require research.

Periodically I receive emails from students wanting to cite one of my Hubs as a research source in a paper they are writing for high school or college.

Arizona Military Museum Display of Navajo Code Talker in Field
Arizona Military Museum Display of Navajo Code Talker in Field | Source

Most simply ask for my full name and some background as to my expertise on the subject but some have additional questions about the topic. I always try to answer these requests.

Recently I received the following email from a college student doing research for a paper on Navajo Code Talkers in World War II:

Hello, I am Rachel. I am doing a research paper on the Navajo Code talkers and how the Japanese were affected by it. The interesting facts about Kieoomia are very difficult to find except on Wikipedia (which my professor deems inappropriate even though it is very useful). I was just wondering if I could use your source as a basis for my research. If this is possible would you be able to send me the date that you wrote your article and where you found the information on him since more information would be very useful for this research. Thank you very much.

Student Was Researching Navajo Code Talkers in World War II

She was referring to my Hub about Navajo Code Talkers in World War II and my mention in it of Sergent Joe Kieyoomia, a U.S. Marine who was a member of the Navajo Nation from Arizona.

Sergent Kieyoomia was also POW, having been captured during the Japanese invasion of the Philippine Islands. While in captivity he was tortured as his captors tried to decipher the code that used the Navajo language.

This young lady apparently wanted to include the story of Sergeant Kieyoomia in her paper but the only place she found it, other than my Hub, was the short Wikipedia article about him.

However, like most teachers, her professor did not allow students to cite Wikipedia as a source for research papers.

Wikipedia is a Digital Encyclopedia

WikiPedia is an encyclopedia. An encyclopedia basically an alphabetical grouping of articles that summarize existing knowledge in general or for a particular branch of knowledge.

As such, an encyclopedia is basically a reference work and source of a quick summary of what is known about the topics included in it.

Having been educated in the era when the Internet was still a secret Cold War military project, I learned to do research using books and other printed materials along with occasional microfilm and microfiche.

I was introduced to the Encyclopedia Britannica in grade school. My parents, like many in that era, also had a set of encyclopedia at home.

I can still remember my teachers in grade school and my Father at home responding to my questions with the comment Why don’t you look it up in the encyclopedia.

Are Good Reasons for Not Allowing Students to Cite Wikipedia Articles in Research Papers

From high school onward we were not allowed to cite encyclopedias as our source of information for our papers.

This is because the object of assigned research papers is to teach students how to do research and that involves digging up the information themselves rather than simply reading summaries by others.

Since Wikipedia is a digital encyclopedia I understand why teachers do not allow students to cite Wikipedia as a source for their research.

However, this does not mean that students should totally avoid using WikiPedia or other encyclopedia when doing research papers.

Wikipedia is a great place to begin a research project, especially if you know little or nothing about the topic.

With thousands of people from all over the world monitoring and checking its articles, the information in the articles is basically accurate.

In fact, a few years ago a group of experts compared the information in Wikipedia with that in the Encyclopedia Britannica and found Wikipedia to have slightly fewer errors than the Britannica which, in the pre-Internet age, had been the standard for information quality.

Wikipedia also has a policy of continuous quality control in which readers are able to flag and correct errors when they encounter them in articles. When articles which appear weak and in need of more research they are flagged as such.

Unless a Wikipedia article is flagged as lacking sufficient research to verify its factual accuracy, students can use Wikipedia articles as points of reference for checking the accuracy of other sources of information they have found.

In addition to being a good place to discover what a topic is about and as a point of reference for checking the accuracy of the sources they end up using in their research, Wikipedia is also a great place for fact checking.

Need to double check a date, name, place or the spelling of these things? Wikipedia is the place to check these facts.

I use WikiPedia constantly When Writing My Hubs

Frequently I will decide to write a Hub in answer to a question in the HubPages Q&A area or for one of the contests that HubPages run periodically based upon some previous knowledge I have of the topic.

In writing my Hub on Reiki I remembered President Nixon’s opening of relations with Red China in the 1970s and the subsequent popularity of acupuncture and other types of Chinese Medicine in the United States.

I decided to weave into my Hub the story of then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger having acupuncture while undergoing an emergency appendectomy during one of his many visits to China but was uncertain as to the year.

A couple of Google searches turned up the Wikipedia article about this event. I not only got the exact year in which it occurred but also discovered that I had confused Henry Kissinger, who I think did have some minor ailment while in China, with New York Times correspondent James Reston.

It was Reston, not Kissinger, who had been treated with acupuncture while undergoing the emergency appendectomy. Upon his return to the U.S. his account in his syndicated newspaper column helped to popularize acupuncture.

Wikipedia is also good for refreshing one’s memory and clarifying details of events that occurred a couple of decades or more in the past.

Use Wikipedia to Find Ideas for a Research PaperTopic

Another good use of Wikipedia is as a way to narrow a broad topic down to a manageable task for a five or ten page research paper.

For instance if the topic is the War of 1812 (the bicentennial of which we are celebrating this year) and the student, like many North Americans, is not familiar with the details of this war.

The Wikipedia article on War of 1812 can not only provide a good overview but also introduce the reader to a particular aspect of that war to use as the topic to research and write about.

By limiting the paper to just one aspect of the war enables the student to go into more detail and produce a more focused piece of work in five or ten pages than trying to discuss an entire war.

You Can't Cite Wikipedia but You Can Check out and Cite Wikipedia's Sources

Research is about finding sources that contain information needed for your project. One can learn a lot about a topic by having to do research on that topic.

The problem is, where does one start looking for something which they know little or nothing about?

With Wikipedia, or another digital or print encyclopedia, one can look up the assigned topic and use the sources cited in the Wikipedia article as a starting point for their own research.

Starting your research by going to Wikipedia is good for at least three reasons.

  • First, it is a good introduction or refresher about the topic.
  • Second, it can alert you to sources not to use in your research. In my web research experience I frequently come across many sources in which the writer simply copied and pasted the content of the Wikipedia article and published it as their own.
  • Third, writers of Wikipedia articles not only research them but also cite their sources. These are in the form of both footnotes for specific facts as well as lists of external sources (this would be the bibliography in a school paper) used in their research.

There are also direct links to other Wikipedia articles for many of the people or events described in the Wikipedia article.

For instance a Wikipedia article on the War of 1812 would mention the burning of York (present day Toronto) by American troops. The word York would probably have a link to a Wikipedia article on the incident or general history of the city and Toronto would have a link to an article on that city.

Example of Wikipedia Footnote
Example of Wikipedia Footnote | Source

Many of these sources are on the web and can be reached with a simple click on the link. Other sources are not on the web but you can often do a Google search using the title, author or other information in the citation and find this or a related source.

In some cases the author may have used a print book or article as their source but the book or article was either already available on the web or has since been published on the web.

I have found the sources cited in a WikiPedia article to be a rich mine of further information. In many cases these are what are known as primary sources - a speech, interview, old letter, article or other document where the information first appeared.

Other articles are what are known as secondary sources which are based on information from primary sources but contain interpretation and other relevant information or insight.

These other articles may contain links to other sources of information on the topic or may cite one or more print references.

Even if they don’t provide direct references to other sources, a careful reading often reveals words and phrases that can be used to search for more sources.

In Conclusion, Wikipedia is Still a Good Reference Tool for Your Project

So, despite the fact that Wikipedia and other encyclopedias are not acceptable sources to cite in your paper, they are a great starting point as well as a good reference for fact checking.

Example of Source Listing in a Wikipedia Article
Example of Source Listing in a Wikipedia Article | Source

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Comments 9 comments

Chuck profile image

Chuck 4 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

aethelthryth - thanks for your comments. While I also find Wikipedia extremely useful in my research, especially when writing on historical topics, I strive to avoid simply saying the same thing as Wikipedia but with different words. This is where digging beyond Wikipedia and other popular sources enables me to find additional information and, more importantly, a different angle for the Hub I am researching and writing.


Lightshare profile image

Lightshare 4 years ago

Thank you Chuck for an information hub like this.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest

Very good explanation of what is and isn't research and why. I use Wikipedia all the time because I forget names, dates, and the order of things, and need a check while I'm writing. It also challenges me, when writing on a historical topic, to look at the corresponding Wikipedia article and ask myself "have I added valuable information to the Internet that isn't already on Wikipedia?"


Patty Kenyon profile image

Patty Kenyon 4 years ago from Ledyard, Connecticut

Interesting and Useful information!! I use Wikipedia as a research starting point and then often go through the citations posted to find out more information that is more reliable for thesis, papers, etc. Great Information!!


Dale Hyde profile image

Dale Hyde 4 years ago from Tropical Paradise on Planet X

Well done hub that should help all in attempts to research. A wonderful breakdown on how to use all the resources that one will find by using Wikipedia as a starting point.

Voted up, interesting and useful.


Lipnancy profile image

Lipnancy 4 years ago from Hamburg, New York

I often use it with keyword research to make sure my meanings are correct which often lead to an idea for another article. I think it is an invaluable resource.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 4 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

ecoggins, shiningirisheyes - thanks for your comments. I am glad you enjoyed the Hub.

As I stated in the Hub, I have found Wikipedia to be an excellent tool for finding information and checking facts. It is a great tool for students once they realize that it is just a starting point for their research and not the end of their research.


ecoggins profile image

ecoggins 4 years ago from Corona, California

This is an excellent hub. I recently fulfilled the requirements for a Ph.D. As you mentioned, I never quoted Wikipedia as a source. However, I did use Wikipedia for preparation for my comprehensive finals. It had concise descriptions of the most important topics related to my academic discipline and, as you point out, extensive reference sections of authoritative authors on the subject.


shiningirisheyes profile image

shiningirisheyes 4 years ago from Upstate, New York

I don't know where I would be without Wikepedia. Its always my back up plan when I can not locate information.

I do see why students shouldn't use it.

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