Things my professor never told me about Wikipedia

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Photo by Beko, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Have you ever had to defend Wikipedia to a professor (or a parent or friend)? This collection of published studies and reports may help make the case for a more enlightened (but still critical) use of the world’s most popular reference website. Wikipedia is a uniquely comprehensive, freely accessible, regularly reliable, well-referenced starting point for further research — so use it wisely.

Away from stigma

The first step is admitting that everyone, from students to doctors, uses Wikipedia. We need to change the conversation from one of abstinence to intelligent information consumption.

“Using Wikipedia to Teach Information Literacy”College and Undergraduate Libraries

“Wikipedia is increasingly becoming the go-to reference resource for the newest generation of students…Librarians and faculty should help remove the stigma associated with Wikipedia by embracing this Website and its imperfections as a way to make information literacy instruction valuable for the twenty-first-century student.”

“Wikipedia and the University, a case study”Teaching in Higher Education

“Our conclusion is that whilst Wikipedia is now unofficially integrated into universities, it is not ‘the’ information resource as feared by many and that an enlightened minority of academics have attempted to assimilate it into their teaching.”

“Faculty Perception of Wikipedia in the California State University System”New Library World

“Overall, faculty perceptions of Wikipedia have shifted in Wikipedia’s favor and that some faculty members create interesting and unique assignments that involve Wikipedia or Wikipedia-like work.”

“In Defense of Wikipedia”100 Law Library Journal

“Research instructors should teach students to use Wikipedia properly, rather than trying to convince them not to use it…Wikipedia can be used to help teach the importance of evaluating sources.”

“How and why do college students use Wikipedia?”Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology

“This study supports the knowledge value of Wikipedia, despite students’ cautious attitudes toward Wikipedia. The study suggests that educators and librarians need to provide better guidelines for using Wikipedia, rather than prohibiting Wikipedia use altogether.”

“Employing Wikipedia for good not evil: innovative approaches to collaborative writing assessment”, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education

“Unwarranted stigma is attached to the use of Wikipedia in higher education due to fears that students will not pursue rigorous research practices because of the easy access to information that Wikipedia facilitates.”

Towards integration

Wikipedia is more than just a place to consume: it’s a forum for practicing vital skills of information literacy and digital citizenship. Wikipedia and its volunteers practice rigorous research, and learning how to edit can improve those skills.

“Wikipedia: When College Students Have an Audience, Does Their Writing Improve?”EdTech Magazine

“When asked to contribute to a wiki — a space that’s highly public and where the audience can respond by deleting or changing your words — college students snapped to attention, carefully checking sources and including more of them to back up their work… their audience — the Wikipedia community — was quite gimlet-eyed and critical…by teaching them to use Wikipedia, they became much better users of the tool. Instead of blindly consuming the content, they understand where the research comes from and how it gets there. In the past, we’ve told them not to use Wikipedia. That’s insane. Rather than saying, ‘It doesn’t have a place in the academy,’ let’s explain to students how it can be used as a tertiary resource. It’s not the end-all and be-all of research, but it’s incredibly useful.”

“The new information literate: Open collaboration and information production in schools” , International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning

“Writing for a non-teacher audience is motivating.. creating a public information resource is associated with a sense of responsibility that promotes critical engagement with information… This sense of responsibility provides an ideal context for practicing information literacy skills like identifying information needs, searching for, and assessing information sources…producing information for others in online environments can give young people a starting point for reflecting on where information comes from; such experiences…require students to reflect on the nature of information production…If we want to develop a more local, shared sense of responsibility, continuing efforts to incorporate public information production in classrooms should include opportunities for students to support and challenge one another in justifying and critiquing claims, as is done by co-authors on Wikipedia.”

“Wikipedia: The ‘Intellectual Makerspace’ of Libraries”Programming Librarian

“We need to see Wikipedia as a makerspace in its own right…Instead of creating a physical item, we have an intellectual makerspace. We need to encourage the activity by teaching editors the value of some information sources over others, how to write for an encyclopedia and how to deal with conflict in virtual environments.”

To improve society

Wikipedia’s mission is to share the sum of all human knowledge. Sometimes this resolves trivia and bar bets, and sometimes it results in new inventions or medical cures. The potential is unlimited.

“Amplifying the Impact of Open Access: Wikipedia and the Diffusion of Science”,

“In most of the world’s Wikipedias, a journal’s high status (impact factor) and accessibility (open access policy) both greatly increase the probability of referencing…the chief effect of open access policies may be to significantly amplify the diffusion of science, through an intermediary like Wikipedia, to a broad public audience.”

“Science is Shaped by Wikipedia: Evidence from a Randomized Control Trial”SSRN

“As the largest encyclopedia in the world, it is not surprising that Wikipedia reflects the state of scientific knowledge. However, Wikipedia is also one of the most accessed websites in the world, including by scientists, which suggests that it also has the potential to shape science. Incorporating ideas into a Wikipedia article leads to those ideas being used more in the scientific literature. We find that fully a third of the correlational relationship is causal, implying that Wikipedia has a strong effect in shaping science.”

For a full review of the new role Wikipedia can play in education, see our Guide for Research Libraries. For a digestible overview of how to use Wikipedia for regular research, check out the Research Help Guide.

Jake Orlowitz, Wikimedian

This post was originally published on Medium, and its text is available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.. While Jake works with us over here at the Wikimedia Foundation, this was written in an entirely volunteer capacity. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author alone.

Archive notice: This is an archived post from, which operated under different editorial and content guidelines than Diff.

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To add to this great post, i would also add that Wikipedia can be both a starting point for learning about a topic, and the ending point: as you’ve done research on the topic, there probably are opportunities for you to improve the article you started from (adding a reference or two, improving the text for legibility, maybe adding a clarifying paragraph, …). This will probably maximize your learning!

“Librarians as Wikipedians: From Library History to Librarianship and Human Rights” Progressive Librarian 42 (Fall 2014): 60-80.

Jake, a very useful summary of the issues for students (and their Professors), thanks. The other thing worth mentioning here is that as of 2016 Wikipedia was the sixth largest referrer to scholarly articles via Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs), only bettered by major publishers like Elsevier, Thomson Reuters, Ex Libris Group, EBSCO Information Services and ProQuest.