Wikipedia keeps cool so you don’t sweat the small stuff

Shawn Heavlin-Martinez

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but the subject of using Wikipedia for research is one that I think a lot about. Two weeks ago, the Lariat ran a Pro/Con opinion piece about whether Wikipedia is a viable research tool. Like a lot of things, this question can’t really be solved with a Yes or a No.

Yes, I know we’ve all taken the easy way out at least once, when our professor wants a one-page piece on how roaming African buffalo herds affect local farming. It only has to be a page long, and you have three pages of algebra homework and a paper due tomorrow. So, you check on Wikipedia, see there is a section on how roaming African buffalo herds affect local farming and use the information to complete your assignment in a timely fashion. That’s fine. On tiny assignments like those, using Wikipedia is perfectly reasonable.

Wikipedia, however, is not the place to do research for your 10-page paper on African buffalo. Wikipedia is the place you go to find out how to spell buffalo. Wikipedia is the place you reference when you’re arguing with your friend over whether African buffalo attack more people than elephants each year.

When it comes time to do detailed, thorough research on African buffalo, Wikipedia is not where you should start. Go to a library. Go to Web sites that were made for the sole purpose of researching these four-legged creatures. Wikipedia should never be your primary research site. Its not that Wikipedia is “bad” for doing research, its that Wikipedia was not meant to be a dedicated research site.

The problem with Wikipedia is when you give into the temptation to use it for progressively bigger assignments. All of us have had that moment at three in the morning staring at a computer monitor and knowing that our ten page final paper is due at noon. So you fire up Wikipedia, churn out the last few pages, and turn it in to the instructor. But you’re not proud of what you’ve written. When you use Wikipedia, it ultimately lessens the quality of whatever you were trying to do. Using Wikipedia on an important paper is like buying a tuxedo at K-Mart. Sure, its a tuxedo, but not something that you’ve put a lot of thought or care into.

Wikipedia is fine for small, inconsequential tasks, but should be avoided for larger assignments. Don’t sacrifice quality for convenience, or someday you’ll learn the hard way that Wikipedia is not, in fact, the sum of all human knowledge.