No, You Cannot Cite Wikipedia (And Other Frank Advice for Research Papers)

Online resources can seem like a goldmine for today’s students, but do you know how to distinguish a genuine authority from a junk site? Learn from Noodle Expert Elizabeth Mack what to look for when you dive into your next research project.

The Internet enables you to access a seemingly limitless quantity of information.

And when you need sources for your research paper, Web-based material can be as reliable as anything in print. And let’s face it — online resources are quick and easy to find. With the touch of a few keys, you have a world of references readily available.

Still, even though you may discover an abundance of authoritative resources online, you can just as easily find ones that are biased, outdated, and downright incorrect. So, how do you use your media literacy skills to evaluate online material and know whether it’s credible?

1. Who is the author?

You might understandably assume that if an author puts her name on a published work online, it must be credible — but don’t be so sure. Simply including an individual’s name on a website doesn’t guarantee she is a credible source.

You need to ask, who is this writer? What are her qualifications? Even a designation like “Dr.” or “Ph.D.” attached to a name doesn’t necessarily make the author a reliable source. If her bio or qualifications are not listed on the site, do some digging. Google the writer’s name. Does she have other research published in academic journals? Does the website state or imply that the source is affiliated with a research university or college? If her bio claims she is on the faculty, check the school’s faculty listing online. If the author is affiliated with a particular organization, does this group sponsor the website or page?

You’ll need to spend time investigating the source to make sure she is a recognized expert in her field. And remember that if an article does not list an author, it’s very possible it was written by a paid freelance writer and not an expert at all.

2. What is the sponsoring organization?

When you find a source you want to use, check that the website clearly states what the sponsoring organization is. Most credible sites clearly state their sponsors, such as an advocacy association or a research agency. One good rule of thumb is to look at the domain provider, which generally indicates the type of sponsoring organization. College and university websites all end in “.edu”; government agencies use “.gov.” Many nonprofits use “.org,” but that doesn’t mean these are all reliable sources — anyone can create a .org website. Most educators consider .edu and .gov to be more reliable sources of information than .com or .net domains, but you may still find reliable information on any of these. For instance, Psychology Today, which uses a .com domain, publishes many articles from doctors who are independent experts or researchers in their fields.

3. What is the purpose of the site?

When you analyze a website, is it clear what its purpose or function is? Ask yourself, what is it trying to do? Many websites aim to educate readers with evidence-backed, authoritative articles whose goal is simply to inform by, for example, publishing recent studies or new legislation. But others, including some organization and company sites, publish information to persuade you, even to sell a product or service. If the website seems to be attempting to persuade you to adopt a certain point of view, it will often use emotion-arousing language or propaganda. Avoid such sources as they are unlikely to provide the sort of objective, balanced information that is suitable for academic research.

4. How current is the information?

Can you easily locate a publication date on the article or website? If not, scroll down to the bottom of the page where you should find the “last update” or publication date. You may encounter sites whose pages have never been updated — which should be a red flag. Most credible sources (newspapers, magazines, and journals) provide current content and update it regularly.

Many instructors require the most recent research, especially on scientific topics. Even studies that are a year old may be outdated in some areas. If the source you’re considering includes linked pages, click on them to see the dates provided on these secondary pages. It’s not uncommon to find dead links, which may also be a sign that the page is outdated.

5. Why won’t your professors accept Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is an extraordinary site, but it is not itself an authoritative source. It’s true that you’re likely to find nearly any topic under the sun addressed there, so it can be a valuable tool to begin research if the page is up-to-date and contains proper citations at the end. But Wikipedia articles are based largely on secondary, rather than primary, sources, and while the information may be accurate, it isn’t necessarily reliable. You’re safer to use this site as a jumping-off point to investigate the other sources that are conveniently cited as endnotes.

When you have an assignment that requires research, spending time collecting your sources is only half the battle. Once you locate articles that fit your topic, it’s imperative you take the time to evaluate their credibility before including them in your paper. Be critical of each source and put your analytic skills to work. You’ll be glad you did.

Learn more about a college's academic department on its Noodle profile. There, you can ask questions about research habits and find further advice from Noodle Experts like Elizabeth Mack.

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