When I was a college student, I couldn’t have even imagined a resource like Wikipedia. Imagine — an online encyclopedia with detailed knowledge about just about any topic I’d ever have to write about in a paper! Back in the day (and we’re only talking the early 1990s, so it shows you how quickly things change these days), if I wanted to know about something, I went to the library for a book or the microfilm machine. (If you don’t know what that is, consider yourself lucky.)
But is Wikipedia really a good resource for college students?
Here’s what makes Wikipedia both really cool and really controversial. Anyone can edit Wikipedia pages (even you). This is done so that people worldwide can share information. If a zoology professor reads something on the polar bear page that she has additional information about, then she can add it. Or she can modify something that isn’t quite right.
Unfortunately, this means that sometimes, the things on Wikipedia that get modified are included and aren’t accurate are just plain wrong. Because of this, many people don’t consider Wikipedia to be a credible source — and your professors might share this view and look at a college paper unkindly that relies heavily on Wikipedia.
So should you avoid using Wikipedia for college papers? I don’t think so. It’s still an amazing source of information, and most of the information on there is accurate.
You just need to use Wikipedia carefully. Always verify what you find on Wikipedia with other sources. This isn’t hard to do, as Wiki pages have their sources listed. In fact, a better strategy is to read the Wiki page for information, and then get a hold of the sources that were used to create the page. Read these sources, and cite them in your paper, and use those sources to find additional sources. This may require you to <gasp> go to the library, like we old school people did.
If you use actually Wikipedia pages in a paper, use them sparingly. Very sparingly. Professors will shake their head and mark you down if they can tell that’s your primary source of information. And never pretend to use the sources on the Wiki page when you’re really just throwing them in your bibliography. This is cheating, and it means your paper will lack credibility.
And just in case you’re inclined to do so, never, ever use a Wikipedia page to plagiarize a paper. I’ve had students do that, and it boggles my mind. Yes, your teachers know how to use Wikipedia, and if they see a suspicious paper, that’s the first place they’ll look to see if you’ve plagiarized.