Why Can’t I Use Wikipedia in my Essay?!

WikipediaAs finals approach, so do term papers. And since most people take 4-5+ classes a semester, that means a LOT of term papers without a lot of time to work on them. Soooo sometimes you might skimp a bit on your research and use Wikipedia. At best, your professor doesn’t care. Usually though, your professor will either hand you your paper and tell you to redo it or just give you a bad grade. NOT cool. Here’s why.

What IS Wikipedia exactly?

One of the most awesome things to ever hit the internet. There’s honestly nothing like looking up “Nintendo DS games” and finding a Wiki that has a clear, simple table of every single game on the DS. It’s awesome. But let’s see what Wikipedia really is.

According to Wikipedia (HA!), Wikipedia is: a free, multilingual encyclopedia project supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation.

Well that didn’t say much, now did it? So basically it’s an open-source encyclopedia that people like you and I can edit. There are Wikis in almost every language that touch upon almost every topic possible.

So what’s so wrong with Wikipedia?

It’s open source. The fact that anyone can alter it makes is dangerous as a scholarly tool. Let’s look at a couple of scenarios and problems with Wikipedia.

Scenario 1: Let’s say you’re a dork and you want to prepare an essay REALLY early. A month before the essay is due early. So you go in Wikipedia, you find some information you like–copy/paste, cite and you’re good to go. You turn in your paper a month later, and your professor decides to check the Wikipedia source. Oh? What’s this? The thing you quoted NO LONGER EXISTS ON THE PAGE. *cue horror music* Your credibility is shot, your professor is pissed, and odds are, you just bombed your paper.

Scenario 2: This time, you wait a little longer, hoping that the Wiki page won’t change. You copy/paste, cite, and turn your paper in. This time, your professor checks the Wiki, and decides that s/he wants to check the citation of the part you quoting. Did YOU think to check the citation? Apparently not, because your professor realizes that the citation to whatever “legitimate source” it said, is nothing more than a dead link. That’s as substantiated as you pulling whatever data from…well…you know where.

Scenario 3: So you’re doing a paper about a controversial topic. It can be abortion, gay marriage rights, heck–even Apple vs. Microsoft. You go and use Wikipedia as a source. You think that’s not biased? People who are pro-life or pro-choice can edit the page. Steve Jobs could edit Microsoft’s page if he wanted to! While real encyclopedias have paid editors to make sure things are unbiased, there’s nothing stopping Wikipedia from being biased.

Oh yeah? Well my professor said it’s ok to use it!

Hey, that’s fine. But what about when you get a professor who says you can’t? Are you going to be dependent on it already? It’s better to not get into the habit than to try and break it. Given the three scenarios I just gave you, why would you want to use it anyway? Sure it’s good to get you started–maybe if you’re trying to pick a topic to write about, it can help you choose. But for research to support your claims? It’s just not worth getting into.

Final Thoughts

Wikipedia is awesome. I love it for researching recent or obscure topics–especially gaming topics. However, when it comes to researching academic papers, I would avoid it.

Posted in Academic Advice.


  1. To be fair…scenario 1 can (theoretically) happen with other websites as well. That’s why our profs require us to include the date and time we accessed the site as well as a printed copy of it when turning in the essay.

    You’re probably right otherwise. Rather use Wikipedia to find current sources in the citation part, then see if those are of use to you.

    • Well, my first suggestion is to make sure you’ve read the book. If you have difficulty understanding Shakespeare, Cliff Notes and Spark Notes can enhance your understanding. However, they are by NO MEANS meant to be the sole resource for a book. They leave out lots of things that may be important to your class or teacher. If you choose to use Spark Notes or Cliff Notes, you need to cite them appropriately in your paper.

      Some teachers/professors won’t even allow Cliff Notes or Spark Notes in the classroom. That being said, if you want to use them to supplement your reading, make sure its ok with your professor first. Otherwise, you may be in for a failing grade (and believe me, they do find these things out).

      Other places you can turn to is your school or local library. Look for books on Macbeth and see if you can find other supplemental sources that explain or analyze the book. Macbeth has been written about hundreds of thousands of times–I’m sure you can find a book or a scholarly journal (either in print or from a library’s online database) to help you out. Either is a much more acceptable source to use than Wikipedia.

      Good luck!

  2. What I am writing either compliments or repeats what you wrote in your article. Wikipedia is not rigorous in reviewing the articles, and as a result many of the Wikipedia articles are plagiarized themselves. Aside from that, encyclopedias in general—and that means good ones like Britannica—are problematic. Encyclopedia articles by nature do not go in-depth into a problem. It is critical that you get good information when writing a paper. Some argue that the cold war in part is due to a paper written by the diplomatic core that was taken too literally. Look it up.

    A further problem is that they are often out-dated before the ink is impressed on paper. It is incumbent on the researcher to find out what experts are saying in the present. Even in history new information regularly changes interpretation. An example would be the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The church had the ceiling murals by Michalangelo cleaned. Centuries of mold, grime, and dirt was lifted off and all the art history books around the world had to be rewritten. The colors all changed from muted earth tones to vibrant bright colors. A similar occurrence was Rembrant’s famous “Nightwatch” painting–he didn’t name it: the painting became a day scene instead of a night scene. If you wrote a paper based on old data you would look foolish in your paper or presentation.

    Consider the recent State of Virginia history text for high school students. It turned out that the writer had relied heavily on a text book written decades ago when historical interpretation was very different and racially biased (that should have been a clue). She got her sources from the internet only, and in particular Google books. Now she is embarrased; the publisher has to “eat” the cost of the print run; and the students must go through another year with an out-dated text. I doubt that the writer will be getting a lot of work in the future. She was not a historian by the way.

    This may be hard to believe, but teachers are forgiving–we know this kind of thing happens–but employers rarely are forgiving.

    • Printed encyclopedias are, indeed, often extremely out of date. My library’s encyclopedias end at the 90s and things have changed dramatically since then. However, that is not to say that web versions of these encyclopedias–often paid for through academic institutions’ libraries–are as flawed. In fact, with more specialized encyclopedias (ranging from literature, to rhetoric and philosophy, etc.), they can often be a great launching point to help one understand difficult concepts. However, I certainly wouldn’t advise a student to only use encyclopedias for the very reason you mention–they do not go in-depth enough to write a college level paper (and perhaps high school, but I do not have experience with that) based off of them.

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