Evaluate Wikipedia Articles
Wikipedia is a very popular online encyclopedia and its articles provide a huge amount of information, but it is important to be aware that:
- anyone can write or edit a Wikipedia article (so there is no assurance that what is written is accurate),
- all Wikipedia authors are anonymous (so you cannot verify the credibility of the article based on the author’s background), and therefore:
- Wikipedia articles should not be cited in college research papers and information from Wikipedia articles should always be verified from a second, reliable source.
- One more reliable alternative to Wikipedia is Citizendium, whose contributors use their real names with the goal of creating quality, citable articles. (About Citizendium.)
Information from Wikipedia can be very useful, however, if used thoughtfully and appropriately. Wikipedia articles are particularly useful to:
- provide some basic background information on a topic (to get some quick, introductory information, not critical facts for academic research)
- get links to more verifiable and authoritative information (links from Wikipedia articles can lead you to good quality, credible data),
- find information on people, publications and organizations that can help you evaluate information from other sources (e.g. if you find information from a magazine or an organization you are unfamiliar with, Wikipedia can give you a brief description of the magazine or organization that can help you decide whether the information is credible.)
You should always evaluate any source of information you use. Ask yourself questions about the information source, such as:
- What individual or organization is responsible for producing the information? (Are they credible and qualified to produce it?)
- Why was it produced? (Is the author trying to promote an idea or sell a product?)
- Where did the information come from? (Does the author cite his or her sources?)
- Who is the intended audience? (Is it intended for the general public, or is it meant for specific groups, such as scholars, children, etc.?)
Specific steps to evaluate Wikipedia articles:
Wikipedia has special policies and organizational methods that can be used to help you evaluate its articles. Follow the specific suggested steps below to evaluate Wikipedia articles:
- Look for template messages or for featured article status
- Does the article have citations for its assertions and facts?
- Check the edit history of the article
- Has an edit to a Wikipedia article been made anonymously?
- If an edit isn't anonymous, check out the User's page
- When viewing the edit history of an article, look for a diversity of contributors
- Read the Discussion Notes
- Think about how the information will be used
Users can place messages on an article indicating problems with citations, style, Wikipedia policies (e.g. “Neutral point of view“, “Verifiability”, "No original research") and more. For examples of different messages, look up template messages in Wikipedia. Also, articles can receive a status of "featured articles" (look for a star on the top right side), which indicates that they have met certain Wikipedia standards of excellence.
Pay attention to the hyperlinked footnotes throughout the article. Are important assertions being cited and what are those sources? If sources are available, check to see if they are being cited properly. Some sources will be considered more authoritative than other sources, but the type of sources chosen, as well as the quantity available, will depend upon the article. A topic from popular culture, like the character Pikachu from Pokemon, would have very different types of sources than an article on a U.S. President. And, likewise, many more authoritative resources will be available to authors writing about a U.S. President.
Every article in Wikipedia has an edit history. Look for the tab labeled "History" at the top on the article. The quantity of edits over a period of time will be an indication of how much effort has been put into constructing the article. Likewise, you can choose to look at the article from any point in its edit history and view a note about what changes were completed. This can be a good way to determine whether an article may have been vandalized before you decided to use it.
The edit history provides either an IP address or a username for each edit to an article. Although, we should always question the accuracy of any contribution, we should ask whether it matters that the contribution was made anonymously. Every contributor will bring a different level of bias and experience to an article. However, by making a contribution anonymously, it becomes more difficult to evaluate these levels. Note that with IP sniffing some addresses can be traced back to their owning organization. So edits done anonymously from IP addresses within Microsoft, the CIA, etc, do tell us something about the contributor.
User pages will list the user's contributions, but sometimes they tell us about the user, his or her age, interests, level of education and experience and more. Find the User's page by clicking on the username found in the edit history. Again, be critical, you can't always trust virtual identities.
Most articles will benefit from a diversity of contributions. Articles in print encyclopedias often draw upon one expert. But with most subjects there are many different ways to approach a subject. This is true even amongst experts. Still this doesn't mean that every viewpoint is of equal value, what it does mean is that information gathered from multiple sources is usually more well-rounded and informed. Think of a research paper for school that had 2 sources versus another one with 20 sources, which paper do you think would be better?
Click on the "Discussion" tab at the top of the article for a background on the article's content. The background discussion of an article can provide a lot of important information about the article. For example, it can provide the reasons why an article was written the way it was. The Discussion notes include challenges, ongoing debates, as well as discussions about possible additions and improvements.
Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. General and specialty encyclopedias are good for finding information quick. They are also a good place to start for a research project. But they are meant to be an introduction to your subject, not the final word. Usually, encyclopedias—including Wikipedia--are not good resources to cite. Good research requires comparing multiple primary and secondary resources critically.