Research for Writers #2: In Defense of Wikipedia

Ah, Wikipedia. Bane of every teacher who has to grade student papers, butt of a thousand jokes. Not a good source for research, right?

Actually, I love Wikipedia. It’s an amazing resource, one I make extensive use of. The trick is, you need to know its strengths and weaknesses, and how to get the most out of what it can offer.

But, you say, isn’t Wikipedia riddled with errors?

Yes and no. Back in 2005, a study published in Nature found that the prevalence of errors in Wikipedia was roughly comparable to those in the Encylopedia Britannica. The people who run the site have put a lot of effort into instituting software and social mechanisms that help improve quality, and it’s paid off. Sure, there are still errors, but in my experience, they generally fall into three categories:

1) Arguments over a contentious topic, where lots of people with extremely passionate views are in mid-war over their subject. These often have flags at the top indicating that there’s something of the sort underway. If you’re researching current events, say, or things of a sensitive political nature, this can be a problem, but I generally haven’t found it to be an issue in scientific or historical research.

2) Rough draft articles, where it looks like one person with a rudimentary knowledge of the subject has thrown together a few paragraphs of info. These usually have a “cleanup” flag at the top, or one saying “needs attention from an expert on the subject.” Even if they don’t, you can generally recognize them just by their roughness.

3) Vandalism. Somebody comes in and edits the page to say that Julius Caesar was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. I’ve never actually seen this happen, because the wiki setup means these kinds of changes can easily be reverted by one of the (highly alert) editors.

So why do teachers try to steer their students away from Wikipedia? Two reasons, in my experience. One is that they don’t want their students to only crib from there; they need to learn how to do research properly. The other is that while Wikipedia is a really good source for facts, it’s a terrible source for analysis of those facts. You can find out what happened in the English Civil War, but if you want to know why the English Civil War happened, you generally need to look in a book.

Okay, so those are the flaws. What about the merits?

Have you ever been driving, and your car gets stuck in the mud or snow? Your wheels spin uselessly as you try to drive forward, slicking the ground even more. But if you can get just a bit of traction — by shoving sticks under the wheel, maybe, or gravel — then that instant of grip, even if it’s brief, can be enough to get you rolling again.

My take on Wikipedia is that it’s a fantastic place to start your research, because it can give you that little bit of traction you need to move forward. Its setup means there’s no practical limitation on what they can devote a page to — unlike, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica. Their list pages are particularly fabulous: you can find a list of colossal sculpture in situ (which is to say, things like Mt. Rushmore), or a list of extant baronetcies, or a list of eighteenth-century British periodicals. Pages like that can lead you to pages you wouldn’t have known to search for, which lead you on, and on again. (As a friend of mine once said, the awesome thing about Wikipedia is that it works the way your brain does, rambling on from one topic to the next, so that you start off reading about plate tectonics and end up on heritage railways.)

Wikipedia can provide you with the names, dates, or technical terms you need to read about in more detail. It can link you to outside sources that explore what you’re looking for, giving you the kind of information that the site itself isn’t so good for. Check the footnotes and bibliography; the books, articles, and websites listed there may form Step Two of your research process. All of this is traction: you don’t want to stop there, unless all you need is basic info, but it’s a perfectly fine place to start.

The funny thing is, Wikipedia can even be helpful when it’s wrong. When I was writing Midnight Never Come, I wanted to know who the Lord Steward for the English court was in 1590. The relevant Wikipedia page listed “William Paulet, Lord St John of Basing” as holding that post from 1588–1603. Which gave me a name — but I wanted to know who he was, whether he was an old man or a young one, etc. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a page on Wikipedia. No fear: I looked him up on Google. I no longer remember my exact query, and after this long the results are probably different anyway, but I know one of the sites it pointed me at was the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Which was behind a paywall; fortunately, it transpired that my university provided access. Only when I went digging around in the DNB, I couldn’t find the guy! So I searched for the phrase “Lord Steward,” and to make a long story short (too late, I know), I found out that there was no Lord Steward appointed after Leicester died in 1588. Wikipedia was wrong . . . but its wrongness had led me to what became my third most commonly-used site while researching the Onyx Court books (just behind the Oxford English Dictionary, and Wikipedia itself).

(And writing this up reminded me that the Lord Steward article was still wrong, years later. I just fixed it: and thus Wikipedia becomes more accurate.)

So yeah: Wikipedia isn’t perfect. No source is. What’s more important is that Wikipedia is dead useful — especially if you use it right.

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  1. 1. Adam Heine

    This is my new favorite blog post ANYWHERE.

    I love Wikipedia as a starting place for research. And because I rarely set my stories in present or historical Earth, I rarely need anything more than that start.

    I can, for example, read about the Japanese Sengoku Period, because my fantasy world is based on that era. Then I can twist, change, or fill in the gaps at will and not worry too much about historical accuracy.

    Also fun (esp. for dystopia writers) is the article on risks to civilization.

  2. 2. green_knight

    The scholarship of Wikipedia is no better and no worse than that of a random book on my shelf or on the shelves of my local library. Once I have an overview of a topic I can look for scholarship, but that first contact has always been pretty random.

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    Adam — oooh, the “risks to civilization” page is shiny. Again, the kind of thing a regular encyclopedia would never include….

    green_knight — in the pre-Wikipedia days, I used to pick up remaindered stuff at Half-Price Books. I can guarantee you some of those turned out, in retrospect, to be a lot worse than Wikipedia. There are filters on the road to print publication that help winnow out the chaff, but just because you read something via ink on a dead tree doesn’t mean it’s brilliant scholarship.

  4. 4. Becca Stareyes

    Actually, the years that I graded for our Space Exploration course, we had that policy for the students’ papers. They would lose points if they cited Wikipedia (or another encyclopedia) directly, but we encouraged them to read the entries on their topics if they didn’t gain enough of a basis from class to start their research. Not only would it give them a grounding in, say, the Salyut program so they can do better searches, but the citations would also be worth following.

    I’d also read the Wiki entries to give myself the background to check their primary sources and look for factual errors. Another plus is that you’re less likely to pull down, say, Young Earth Creationist sites when looking for radioisotope dating, or porn sites when googling an internet term.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    Becca — yeah, you just don’t want them to stop there. But I think a lot of teachers lose sight of that forest for the trees, and try (and fail) to prevent their students from using it at all.

  6. 6. AJD

    Of course Julius Caesar wasn’t assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. John Wilkes Booth wasn’t born yet. Julius Caesar was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth’s father. Right?

  7. 7. Mris

    We have a game at my house. It’s called the Taft Game. You hit “random page” on wikipedia and see how many hops it takes you to get from there to William Howard Taft.

    It is a good game.

  8. 8. Jaime Lee Moyer

    The best part of Wikipedia for me are the links that lead me other places. I’ve found primary source material digitized on line from those links. For a writer working on historical fantasy, those documents, from any time period, are a goldmine.

    I also found large universities who put entire history and anthropology courses online via Wikipedia links. Those courses had links to other source material as well.

    Using Wikipedia for me is akin to a choose your own adventure story. It’s all in following the right trail.

  9. 9. Marie Brennan

    AJD — Hah! I had never noticed that. My thanks. :-)

    Mris — that’s like the game XKCD clued me into, that if you consistently click on the first link in a Wikipedia article that isn’t italicized or inside parentheses, sooner or later you end up at “Philosophy.” I have tested this. It really is true.

    Jaime — with slightly less risk of ending up falling to your death when the tree branch you chose to grab breaks under your weight — at least I hope so . . . .

  10. 10. Mary

    Well, Marie, I refuted it. One worked, but when I started from The Pot Bears a Son, it hit language — and then circled back around to language, and so obviously would never get out.

  11. 11. Marie Brennan

    Mary — did you click on “Turkic language family”? Because “Siberia” is actually the first non-italicized, non-parenthesis link on that page, and if you go through that, you hit “region” and then “geography” and then “science” and I know from experience that will take you around to philosophy.

    (Not that it *particularly* matters; this is just a silly trick. But I’m curious!)

  12. 12. S.C. Butler

    Great topic. I also begin most of my research on Wikipedia. My wife the YA librarian loves to use Wikipedia as a way to teach kids how to follow footnotes and do further research.

    My other favorite simple research tool for subjects I know nothing about is children’s non-fiction, i.e. big, picture heavy survey books for middle graders on things like Whaling or the History of Clothing. The trick is to pay no attention to the details unless confirmed elsewhere.

  13. 13. Carradee

    Wikipedia’s also useful because of those reference links at the bottom of the info pages. When there aren’t many references, it can be a flag of less-than-stellar info, but it can also lead you to more in-depth information. :-)

  14. 14. Marie Brennan

    S.C. Butler — yeah, those kinds of introductory books can be great. Especially since they have, as you say, so many pictures: people sometimes seem to get this weird idea that adults don’t need visual referenecs . . . .

    Carradee — Indeed, lack of references is a warning flag, and the links and bibliography and so on are often my next port of call.

  15. 15. Sam Graham

    Thanks for writing the blog I’ve been meaning to write for a long time!

    I’ve long held that while Wikipedia is unreliable, strongly biased towards viewpoints held by white middle-class americans with sufficient time on their hands to write articles (ie US college students…), it’s still very useful as a starting point for research into any topic you don’t know anything about: because while you need to take the article with a grain of salt, it’ll almost certainly link you to a wealth of further reading or at least give you some decent domain-specific search terms to type into Google.

    And more often than not the Wikipedia article turns out to be pretty good, although sometimes shockingly awful. :) (The cultural bias is the big one I tend to notice these days – even though I’m only from the UK, the gulf can be noticeably wide on some articles.)

    I heard, years before Wikipedia, that the definition of a boring person, is someone who opens the encyclopedia, finds the entry they were looking for, reads just that entry, closes the encyclopedia and puts it back on the shelf. Myself, I’ve always found opening the encyclopedia to be a six-or-more hour journey.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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