How to use Wikipedia in your Academic Paper

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You should NEVER cite Wikipedia in an academic paper. Your teacher will think you are at best lazy and at worst an idiot if you do. But that doesn’t mean that Wikipedia is useless; far from it. Here are 4 ways to use Wikipedia to write better papers without needing to cite it at all.

  1. Background information: The Grapes of Wrath makes a lot more sense if you understand the dust bowl of the depression. The fighting in Iraq makes more sense if you understand that it wasn’t until after World War I that it became one country under the British. Knowing the context of your topic can help you understand that material better and write about it more clearly.
  2. Links: At the bottom of every article is a list of external links. These sites are often articles or respected authorities that you CAN cite. For example you could use a few liens from the Woody Guthrie song Tom Joad about his experience of seeing the film Grapes of Wrath in a paper on the topic. There are also good links in the Notes section (which are the references for factual statements made in the article).
  3. Keywords: Sometimes coming up with the right keywords for a library or google search is the hardest part of a research project. The Wikipedia page can give you a ton of clues about what word combinations will get you the best results. For example “drought” gets a lot more irrelevant hits than “dust bowl”.
  4. References: Also at the bottom of each article is a list of books and articles that were used to put this article together. Those are things you can read and later cite. A librarian can help you get a copy if you can’t find them yourself.

The goal here is not to take Wikipedia as gospel but to use it to focus your research (via links, keywords and references) and get a little context (via background information). Focusing cuts down the time you spend on the project while context will get you a better grade for your effort.

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