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Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia that anybody can edit. It's non-profit, has no advertising, and has almost 3 million English articles. The English version of Wikipedia may be the single largest reference work in the history of the world. Wikipedia is a collaborative project, meaning that thousands of writers ("editors") work together on the articles. Most articles have multiple authors.
The strength of Wikipedia is that anybody can add to it, so it contains an enormous amount of detailed information, and the information is usually current up to the minute. Likewise, the problem with Wikipedia is that anybody can add to it — so it may contain inaccurate information.
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How Not to Use Wikipedia
Wikipedia articles change all the time, and the information in an article at any given moment may be incorrect. Some editors accidentally add incorrect information, and others may not catch the mistakes right away. Sometimes, malicious people ("vandals") add incorrect information on purpose, just to play a prank.
Because of these problems, you should never use a Wikipedia article as a major source for a research paper. Even using Wikipedia as a minor source may be risky, and it may not be allowed by your teacher or professor.
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How Wikipedia Can Help Your Research
Still, Wikipedia can be very useful when you are writing a research paper. Here are a few of the ways it can come in handy:
- It can provide background information on the subject of your paper.
- It has hyperlinks in the text, so you can find out about related subjects.
- Many articles have cited references that you can follow for more information. While Wikipedia may not be reliable, the sources that editors cite are often excellent and reliable.
- Wikipedia's official policy is that its articles must have a neutral point of view. That means that in most cases, you can use Wikipedia to help you decide whether another source is biased or not.
- For most assignments, your instructor will want you to use sources other than encyclopedias. Wikipedia, like other encyclopedias, can be a good starting point for your research.
- Always use your judgment when deciding whether to use any source. The best sources come from universities, government agencies, and peer-reviewed journals. Websites and books with a point of view may be biased.
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A Final Word
Do not ever copy text from Wikipedia into your paper and try to pass it off as your own work. This is called plagiarism. Most teachers and professors are very good at detecting plagiarism, so you will probably get caught. Plagiarism is usually worth an F on the assignment and sometimes in the class. At the college level, you can even be suspended for it. Don't do it!