It’s SO easy. It’s right there, at the top of your Google search results. And it seems right. So why won’t your professors let you use Wikipedia as a source?
Are they insane? Cruel? Some combination of both?
Most of the concern about Wikipedia comes from its form as an open-content wiki. What this means is that anyone can edit the entries. While this sounds great in theory, think about it a minute. Do you really want your little sister editing an entry on your favorite band? How about a Yankees fan editing an entry on the Red Sox? Or a death penalty advocate editing the article on Dead Man Walking? These kinds of conflicts are not only possible, but probable in the Wikipedia open-content universe. In fact, some companies, individuals, and political entities have been warned by Wikipedia for editing thier own entries to portray themselves in a better light. Wikipedia has been working to monitor contributors to their entries, but as long as it remains an open-content site, there will always be some doubt about the veracity of the information in it. Wikipedia itself warns about the possibility of incomplete or erroneous information in their entries.
Does this mean it is useless? Not at all. Most entries have good information and Wikipedia is fairly vigilant about real abusers to the system. We use Wikipedia at the library all the time, but in the same way we would use any other encyclopedia – as a jumping off point into more in-depth information. Many articles have excellent citations – in fact, the Footnotes, References, and External Links sections of a Wikipedia entry often point you to authoritative sources of online and print information. For instance, check out the references section of the Wikipedia entry on Clarence Darrow. Not only are there a lot of good links to official websites regarding Darrow, but also a bibliography of print sources you can look up and use in your research. (This is also a good barometer of how reliable the entry might be – no sources or citations? Caveat emptor.) And this is what your professors are really concerned about – how authoritative, in other words, how reliable and accurate, is your information?
Like most general encyclopedias (which are designed for breadth, not depth), Wikipedia is a great place to start research, but a terrible place to finish it. So use Wikipedia to get a handle on your subject. But don’t take it at face value. Even better, use the library’s database Credo Reference, which provides information from hundreds of authoritative reference resources.