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Wikipedia is the first website many of us go to when we want to learn about a new topic, double-check a fact, or do some preliminary research for a paper. Wikipedia is a unique tool that has changed how we use the internet and collect information.
But most of the time you could be getting better results on different websites.
Wikipedia has several rules for the content that can appear on the site. These rules exist to keep Wikipedia’s knowledge library accurate and consistent. However, the rules also have some negative impacts.
Wikipedia has an article about the systemic bias present within articles and in the topics that it includes. Wikipedia often excludes articles due to lack of “notability,” making it difficult to learn about some subjects that don’t fit editor’s perceptions of importance. Also, there’s no guarantee that articles are current, offer a complete and unbiased approach to the subject, or are managed by experts in the field.
Wikipedia has structural changes from article to article, making it difficult to compare topics. The site also asks that authors cite every piece of information from a reputable source. While this rule is excellent for technical topics, it can lead to common-sense knowledge being disregarded or excluded from the commentary.
Better Choices for Casual Research
It’s easy to spend hours procrastinating on Wikipedia researching things you never knew existed. But if you’re interested in a specific topic (like a TV show or a historical event), other sites have more to offer.
For instance, consider the huge amount of information available on actors and TV shows on fan-created wikis on fandom.wikia.com. Wikipedia rarely (if ever!) devotes so much to specific character breakdowns and episode-by-episode descriptions. But these wikis have them in spades.
For many other topics, a simple Google search will quickly lead you to specific websites dedicated to your topic. These websites will offer similar (or better!) information than Wikipedia, and present it in more engaging ways.
For example, the Wikipedia article on “Vegetable” is pretty dry:
But GreatGrubClub offers just as much information (even if it’s intended for children) and has a game to play:
For casual learning at all ages, websites created by people who care about the topics are a lot more fun and interesting than Wikipedia.
Better Choices for Academic Research
Okay, but let’s say we’re not just researching random things to kill time.
What about when you honestly need to learn about a topic quickly and accurately? While Wikipedia can be an okay starting point, the internet offers other reliable and specific options as well.
Wikipedia does not guarantee a complete or current exploration of your topic. For contentious subjects, it is unlikely that the article represents all expert understanding. For this reason, when doing academic research, it is always best to use scholarly research engines.
Many universities offer free access to database searches like JSTOR, PsycINFO, and EBSCOhost. If you don’t have access to these databases, Google Scholar is also a great free research resource. You may also find that for understanding or comparing pure data WolframAlpha is a good choice for your preliminary research.
The Internet Is a Lot Bigger Than Wikipedia
“But we need Wikipedia for an overview of the topic!” the students yell from the back of the room.
I mean, sure. I’m a student too and I get it. Wikipedia is a great way to get a very brief overview of the topic and introduce key terms and topics.
You may find, however, that specific Wikis with different content guidelines provide better coverage of your specific topic. For example, individuals interested in sustainability studies may find Appropedia a better resource than Wikipedia. Try searching your general area of study + “wiki” to see if there is a similar online encyclopedia for your topic.
However, if you want a quality overview of a topic, consider reading an introductory online textbook chapter written by an expert. These chapters have a much higher quality of evidence and are more likely to be current, complete, accurate, and valid.
If textbook chapters aren’t your style, there are academic blogs, websites, and YouTube lectures about your topic as well. These are often curated by experts in the field, and can offer more insight and knowledge than a single Wikipedia article. It may take a little longer to find these resources, but the quality of information is worth it (and, you can cite them guilt-free in your paper).
Better Choices for Practical Insights
If you’re looking at Wikipedia for practical information on how things work or how to do something, you’re looking in the wrong place. When it comes to practical knowledge, the more available styles of teaching and doing you find, the better. After all, everyone does things a little bit differently, and it can be helpful to see the breadth of people’s experiences instead of a single explanation.
Teaching practical information often requires a different approach than a Wikipedia article. For this reason, if you are online to learn new skills, I highly recommend using a different site.
YouTube is full of tutorials and videos that can help share individual experiences with you. WikiHow is another site dedicated to providing readers with step-by-step approaches to any topic imaginable. There are also a ton of resources in the article below if you are interested in learning-specific skills online.
Every entry on each of these sites will not always be accurate. So, be careful and use your discretion. However, taking the time to wade through the many resources out there is worth it. The resources on these sites can easily provide a better learning experience for practical skills and information than Wikipedia.
If You’re Going to Use Wikipedia, Here’s the Best Way
I don’t want to take away from what Wikipedia has achieved. Wikipedia is one of the largest and most successful crowd-sourcing projects online. And it does offer a significant amount of relatively valid information for free about almost any topic imaginable.
However, even though Wikipedia is a good resource, it’s not the best that the internet offers. It’s significant that the site has evident biases, may not represent a complete overview of each topic, and may not always base itself on expert knowledge.
But if you’re going to use Wikipedia, keep the following tips in mind:
- Always remember that you may not be getting the full story or recent evidence. This doesn’t matter if you’re just researching for fun. If you’re making an important decision based on your research, then investigate other sources as well!
- Use the citation links at the bottom to investigate sources and find other related online resources.
- Identify the key terms, important topics, and notable experts mentioned in the article. This can help you refine your research later.
What are your favorite non-Wikipedia online resources for research? Let me know in the comments!