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Wikipedia: Can You Use it For Your Essays?

So, you’re new to essays. This is the first time that your teacher has set you a piece of work like this and you have no clue where to start. You turn your computer on and search the topic of choice in Google. Great start. Of course, you click on the first article that comes up. That’s where you get stopped in your track: Wikipedia. You vaguely remember your teacher saying something about it. You’re not supposed to use it, right?

Or maybe you’ve been writing essays for years and the Wikipedia hatred has never made any sense to you. You can’t get your head around why everyone always scoffs at it. I mean, it’s full of info that’s easy to read and easy to access. Google loves to recommend it. And most of the time, it seems to be pretty accurate. So why can’t you just slap your essay topic in there and hope for the best?

Whether you’re an essay newbie or a writing veteran, I get the struggle. I spend so, so many years asking myself questions about the famous free online encyclopaedia. What makes it so bad? Where did it get that reputation from? Is there a right way to use it?

Well, I’m here to tell you that there is a right way. You can use Wikipedia to help you with your essays if you know how to do it right. There is a right way. But that means there’s a wrong way to use it, too! And that’s the thing that your teacher hates so much. Read on to let me explain how you can use Wikipedia in your essays with ease.


Why Teachers Hate Wikipedia

You must already know that teachers hate Wikipedia. I mean, they have to explain so, so many times why it isn’t real research. They’re frankly sick and tired of it!

And, to be honest, I don’t blame them. They’re right. As much as I would like to tell you that you can just scroll through one single page to get all of the info for your essays, Wikipedia is not a substitute for real research.

So instead of telling you that there is a right way to use Wikipedia and risking you abusing that or misunderstanding, teachers would much rather get the idea right out of your head early on. That way, you’re forced to do all of your research the old-fashioned way.

But what’s so wrong with it? Well, many things! Here are the main ones, though.

Most of the Articles Can Be Edited by Anyone

When I was a young teen 10 years ago (wow I’m old), I used to mess around with Wikipedia. If I got bored, I would hide random fake facts in obscure articles for fun. Then, I would check back every once in a while to see if it had been changed or not. It was a 50/50 chance! And when no one had changed it, I would laugh myself silly. Those were the days.

I know that I must seem like the coolest thirteen year old ever to you, but I promise you it was loads of fun! I felt sneaky and it seemed hilarious to me.

But the point isn’t about my lack of a social life. It’s about how easy it was for me, a random 13 year old with a cheeky streak, to go in and make changes to the articles. There are so, so many pages on Wikipedia that are open to the public to edit. Most of them are, in fact! Which means that you can’t guarantee that the person who wrote that article you want to cram into your essay knew anything about the subject. I didn’t!

There are loads of people who vandalise articles for fun. However, there are other people who go into those articles and write in lies to spread an agenda. Wikipedia has had to protect pages talking about the Holocaust and Holocaust Denial for obvious reasons. Not every page has that same treatment, though, so you need to be careful! You don’t want to end up spreading false information or having your political views skewed by lies.

Anyone can edit Wikipedia. That’s the point! That’s how they can provide so much info for free! But it also means that most of the articles don’t have a protected status.


It Isn’t an Authority on the Subject

If you’ve ever had to cite your sources in an essay before, you might have wondered why you can’t just throw Wikipedia in there.

I get the temptation. Who doesn’t want to fill their bibliography with as many sources as possible? I still have that urge now, despite the fact that I’m studying for an MA and a teaching degree! But I don’t think enough of us are told what a bibliography is. So, let me explain it to you.

Bibliographies, footnotes, endnotes and all other types of citation are ways that you can appeal to an authority in your essay. It’s like you saying “I know this because this person said it and this person is an expert”. So, when you add a source into your essay, you better be damn sure that it’s reliable. If you aren’t sure, you end up looking like a fool. And how can you be sure with Wikipedia when anyone can edit it?

If you told someone that you have a very rare kind of disease, would you say “I know because my friend claimed that the doctor said I have it”? No! You would appeal to the authority: the doctor! If you aren’t 100% sure that a doctor said it, you’d seek out a doctor’s opinion!

It’s the same with Wikipedia. Citing it in your essay is the same as saying “I know this is true because this person I don’t know who may or may not be adding lies into this article or accidentally messing up said so”. Not a good look.

Work from experts is peer-reviewed to make sure that there are no errors or lies. Rely on the experts. Corroborate the evidence by seeing if more than one source agrees. That’s how you write a good bibliography.

Student Use It When They’re Being Lazy

Wikipedia usually separates the students who try hard from the ones who can’t be bothered. It’s a lot quicker and easier to scroll through one single article than it is to go to the library, open a book and turn the pages. Or, to actually find real journals online. They can be a nightmare to get hold of if you don’t have the money to spare.

But most schools in the UK do provide a wealth of resources for you to access. If not through your school, then you can try your local library, too! Your teacher could give you some stuff to read and point you in the right direction. If you ask them where you can start, they will usually be very helpful!

So, with the fact that you can find sources if you really look, the people who use Wikipedia too much are usually the ones who are either too lazy to put in the work or left it to the last minute and are in a rush to get it all done. Either way, you are not making the most out of the time you have to write your essay.

So it is no wonder why teachers hate Wikipedia so much. It’s what it stands for. What it represents. Laziness, inaccuracy and a lack of real care for the subject. That could affect your grades in the long term.


How Not To Use Wikipedia

Teachers see the wrong way of using Wikipedia so much that they don’t want you to use it at all. The risk that you’ll mess it up like most students is way too high for them. They don’t want to encourage laziness. However, there is a right way. You just need to make sure that you never do these things:

  • Don’t cite it in your essay. No one needs to know that you used it.
  • Don’t rely on it as your main source of information. You need lots of reliable sources to balance it out.
  • Never forget to fact-check everything you learn. The more sources that agree, the better.
  • Don’t underestimate vandalism or let your guard down with false information. Be on guard at all times.
  • Don’t stop there. Keep researching.
  • Don’t copy word for word. Make sure that you write in your own words or take short quotes from reliable sources – not Wikipedia.

It is important that you understand the weaknesses of Wikipedia when you use it. If you know where all of its faults are, you are much less likely to fall into the trap of making your teacher mad.

But that makes it sound like you can’t use it at all, right? You can’t cite it or take it on face-value. You need to make sure that you have other sources to back it up. So, what’s the point of using it in the first place?

Well, my dear friend. Time. It saves you a whole bunch of time.

How to Use Wikipedia Properly

The secret to using Wikipedia properly is being so sneaky that no one knows you’ve used it. It’s there to act as a guide or a springboard, but not as a source of information. That saves you so, so much time in the long run, trust me! Ok, probably not as much as just writing your essay straight from the article, but you are much more likely to get a good grade and save some time. Win win, right?

You can use Wikipedia to teach you the basics of the subject and point you in the right direction for your proper research. Follow this step-by-step guide and you will be using Wikipedia in no time!

  1. Research the topic on Wikipedia. This will give you a basic understanding of it. It is very helpful, as some reliable sources treat you like you already know the topic!
  2. Write down the most important facts.
  3. Check out Wikipedia’s own citations. When you see a useful bit of info, check the source Wikipedia links to for it! (The little numbers next to the information that take you to the bottom of the page.)
  4. If there is no source that you can find for the info you like, either toss it out or make a note to look it up yourself later on.
  5. Read the sources cited and check that they are reliable.
  6. Work out if the sources are primary, secondary or tertiary.
  7. Consider how the sources can be used.
  8. Research the dates, statistics and other information that you were given more closely.
  9. Check the bibliographies of reliable sources for other sources.
Wikipedia Reference Page
An example of a Wikipedia Reference Page or Bibliography.

After you’ve put the work in, your research will be great! And you don’t have to go looking for sources all on your own!

Get a Good Referencing Guide

Now that you’ve got the research part of your essay done, it is time to think about how you can reference the sources you used in your work. Of course, people in university might use something like EndNote, but that can be a bit pricey if you’re in school! Usually, unis provide it for us.

So, it is a good idea to pick up a guide on how you can cite other works the right way in your essay. I recommend Cite Them Right by MacMillan Study Skills. It is easy to understand and covers most of the different referencing styles that you could be asked to use at school!

Plus, it is made for university students, so you will be able to use it if you decide to go off to uni. It doesn’t matter what subject you choose to take!

If you want more great book suggestions that can set you on the right path, why not check out my resources page?

I hope this helped! Make sure to keep learning!

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  1. This is such a good blog post, how did I not know about it? Silly me. I wish I read this early. I love it. Thank you.