Using Google and Wikipedia Sources
Using Wikipedia for Research
While Wikipedia is sometimes considered to be off-limits for academic research, many students and faculty members still use it to get quick and easy access to information. In fact, Wikipedia can be a very helpful tool as you begin exploring a topic. However, it is important to be aware of Wikipedia's strengths and weakness, so that you can use this source effectively in your research process.
Although Wikipedia articles are not scholarly sources themselves (and typically should not be quoted in research papers), they frequently synthesize information from academic journal articles. As a result, they can serve as excellent entry points into the scholarly literature on a subject. Wikipedia articles can directly contribute to your research by providing the following elements:
By reading the Wikipedia page on a topic, you can glean important terminology that is used within that field of study. This technique is particularly useful if you are just beginning to explore an area of research. You can use these specialized terms when searching for scholarly literature on the topic.
Often, the most valuable aspect of a Wikipedia article is its list of references, which can be a great starting point for your research. You can follow the references to scholarly sources that are more appropriate for citing in your own papers. References frequently include links to full text online.
A high quality Wikipedia article can also provide background information on key concepts, authors, and works within a subject area. This basic introduction can help you to understand or interpret the scholarly literature on a topic.
Evaluating the Reliability of a Wikipedia Page
Since the individuals editing any particular Wikipedia page are not necessarily experts in the subject matter, the quality of information can vary considerably from article to article. While some Wikipedia pages contain information that is incorrect, incomplete, or biased, others present balanced and objective topic summaries that are based on credible sources. There are a number of simple steps that you can take to gauge the reliability of a Wikipedia article.
Analyzing the Article
The best way to determine an article's quality is to examine its use of citations. How many references does it contain? Are most of the article's claims backed up by citations? Does the article reference scholarly sources? It is important to examine the sources cited and evaluate whether or not the Wikipedia article fairly represents the ideas of the original authors.
Some further criteria that you can use to assess the overall quality of a Wikipedia article include the following:
- Objectivity: Does the article seem to be objective, or does it reflect some type of bias?
- Currency: Does the information seem current, or is it out-of-date?
- Coverage: What is the scope of the article? Can you tell if any important aspects of the topic have been omitted?
- Language: Does the article use appropriate terminology, or is the language overly informal?
For more general information about evaluating web sources, see this UBC Library Guide.
Checking Wikipedia Features for More Information
Wikipedia has a couple of features that can shed some light on the history and quality of an article's content. For example, an article's discussion page (located under the "Talk" tab) can provide more information about how the article was created. In particular, the discussion page is a place where contributors frequently draw attention to existing problems with the article.
It is also useful to pay attention to any clean-up messages that appear at the beginning of a Wikipedia page. Wikipedia aims to produce articles that meet certain standards for writing and research, so editors will sometimes flag articles that require some type of improvement (e.g. if an article has insufficient citations). Lastly, articles with a bronze star in the corner of the page have been identified as Featured Articles, which means that they meet Wikipedia's highest standards of quality. Pages can lose this status over time, however, so it is still important to evaluate an article's reliability using the criteria above.
Further questions? Wikipedia itself has an excellent guide that discusses how to avoid common pitfalls and use it as an effective research tool. Feel free to contact the UBC Library if you need help with evaluating the quality of information sources.
Google's standard search engine can find a wide variety of websites and documents, including both scholarly and popular sources. Since a single search can often retrieve thousands of hits, it is helpful to be aware of a few tricks for quickly identifying what types of sources are present in your results list.
A brief scan of a website's URL (Uniform Resource Locator, or website address) can give you some important information about what kind of source it is. There are several types of websites that you can learn to recognize by decoding their URLs:
- University and college websites: It is useful to be able to identify websites that are affiliated with universities and colleges, because they can be a good source of reliable, unbiased information, particularly if the content is being created by a university department or research unit. However, it is important to remember that students, as well as faculty members, can create webpages that connect to their departments, so the quality of information can vary. You can recognize websites affiliated with American universities by the ".edu" extension at the end of their URLs.
- Government websites: The websites of different government departments can be another good source of accurate, current, and reliable information. You can identify American government websites by their ".gov" extension. In Canada, federal government departments use the extension ".gc.ca." Some provincial government websites include ".gov" somewhere within the URL (e.g. www.gov.bc.ca, or www.gov.sk.ca), but others simply use the name of the province (e.g. www.alberta.ca, or www.ontario.ca).
- Business and organization websites: URLs that contain the extensions ".com" or ".org" are primarily used by businesses and organizations. While reputable companies and organizations will post information that is accurate, you can expect to encounter some bias, as these websites are quite often created for marketing purposes.
Scanning the Snippet Text
Each Google result usually displays a brief description or excerpt that is one or two lines in length. This short "snippet" of text often provides information about the scope or purpose of the website, allowing you to determine whether the content is likely to be relevant before you click through to the site. As well, the language and tone revealed in snippet (e.g. formal/informal phrases, first person narration, technical terminology) can give some clues about what type of content the website is likely to contain. For example, a number of grammatical errors might cause you to dismiss certain results as being less reliable.
Switching Over to Google Scholar
If you need to find academic sources, you can focus your search on this type of material by using Google Scholar. To learn more about this academic search engine, see this UBC Library guide.