In defence of Wikipedia as a research source

Today there was a flurry of activity on the listserv for the Association of Internet Researchers around using Wikipedia as a source. Mostly the response was negative. A sampling of comments:

It’s not that I don’t like Wikipedia: it’s that I don’t find it appropriate to cite any dictionary and/or encyclopaedia at all in any kind of essay, including K-12.

and

…a reference to Wikipedia sounds to me like a footnote saying ‘hey dude, look at the dictionary’, if not just
‘rtfm.’

Here’s what I wrote in my first posting to the list:

I frequently use Wikipedia as a starting point and foundation for scantily researched (at least in the social sciences) technical subjects.

When nobody was writing on wikis, social software, copyleft, crowd sourcing or free software, Wikipedia had the most comprehensive definitions. Unlike an online dictionary reference, Wikipedia also contains history, controversies, (often academic) citations and links out to key people and websites. Researching the development and use of internet technology for social justice activism, I typically find that Wikipedia has the most useful, if not the only, information I’m looking for. While my research area has gained more attention from academe recently, this was not always the case.

Further, with “official” academic work, there is often a lag between time of writing and publication. When writing about “now” technology, this material is typically out of date, and perhaps useless to the discussion or question at hand.

There is a conflation in this discussion between researchers well versed in a subject using Wikipedia out of necessity (rather than laziness or poor research skills) and undergraduate students doing a Google search and clicking the top link – usually Wikipedia. In my classes, I discourage the use of Wikipedia, in order to foster “proper” research techniques. Students need to learn academic protocol in research, established and long used for excellent reasons, before they consciously veer from this.

I wonder how the “grown up” readers of our work can find more information on a topic when we, the folks who presumably dedicate our working lives to it, cannot do so easily. There is also a question of accessibility to knowledge that I think is important and has been glossed. Perhaps highly technical information could be found by scouring the computer science journals, although I have not found this process highly fruitful. In any case, the default to jargony, near-impenetrable information written by “authorized knowers” over collaboratively produced knowledge by Wikipedian experts written for a lay audience is not surprising, but it is a bit worn.

While there are certainly well-documented problems with Wikipedia, and I do think it should be used sparingly and critically, I think the quickness to offense by reviewers is unwarranted. Collaboratively produced, “un-peer reviewed” knowledge is as old as humanity and should not be so easily dismissed. The subject area should be considered, and if the reviewer is so sure this information is readily to be found, perhaps s/he should do a quick Google Scholar search herself.

2 Responses to “In defence of Wikipedia as a research source”

  1. Christopher Parsons Says:

    I agree with most of this. I do, at the same time, worry that when a researcher is doing work with hypercontemporary technologies that what is found in Wikipedia has a bad tendency to reflect what has been said in the tech news. Inaccuracies often carry over from those news pieces into articles themselves, and this reduces the impact of subsequent scholarship with the very technically minded people who you might *really* want to peer review elements of an article.

    At the same time, wikipedia has the absolutely awesome effect of bringing siloed knowledge into the public. I cannot state just how important I think that this is. It’s something that I’d like to see encouraged. To this point, I would suggest that a great, relevent, fresh assignment for some undergrad classes might be writing a wikipedia page on something or other that isn’t already covered (and is related to the course they are taking). This brings potentially weeks of research to an article, can be submitted separate to the prof for grading, and most importantly feels like it matters. I see this as a great way of encouraging students to use wikis as the read/write spaces that they are, as opposed to merely reading them.

  2. Gabriella Coleman Says:

    As you already mention, the existence of the links, especially citations is key for this argument. I go to Wikipedia to check out some of the citations, which leads me to other articles, which leads me to other citations and so on. If Wikipedia had never moved to citations and references, then I would be skeptical but Wikipedia has certainly moved in that direction, which is why it is useful in certain cases.

    I do research on Anonymous, which has not seem one academic piece yet and indeed, the Wikipedia site has an overflowing list of handy references:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anonymous_(group)

    If one started and stopped at Wikipedia, it would be a problem. If one starts there and goes elsewhere, it is a great resource.