“And You Learned That Where?” (Wiki’s fine for a bar-bet, but for a research paper? Not that much)

You’re doing that research/persuasive/white paper, and you need some verifiable facts to make your case. So you Google/Bing/Whatever-the-engine, and likely the first or second entry you’ll see will be a Wiki (Wikipedia) entry. It’s likely full of great stuff. Easy-peasy, yes? Nope. The problem in using information from a Wiki or Wiki-type listing is simple: Anyone can edit it. From experts with a couple of PhDs and years of experience, to a 10 year old working on his tablet. Usually Wiki entries are reviewed by experts and often contain incredibly useful information, but people reading your paper have no idea if that particular source was correct that day. There are ways of utilizing Wikipedia, but it takes an extra step, and we’ll talk about that in a few moments. In the meantime, some sources you should not use for scholarly works (that is, anything needing to be verified):

  • Wikipedia or other “Wiki” pages – As explained above, anyone has access.
  • Blogs – Unless the blog (or guest blogger) is a writer with verifiable credentials, we have similar issues as Wiki above. In fact, many high school and college instructors won’t allow blogs as research sources regardless.
  • About.com – This is not a shot at About.com. But, their answers are often gained by websearches, thus not allowing for verification in some cases, and in other cases, not citing their answers at all.

Sources you should be concentrating on for more uniformly creditable information include:

  • Peer Reviewed Journals/Publications – When an organization has its own recognized (scholastically) experts, they will often have a regular journal or magazine that is what is referred to as peer reviewed (sometimes “juried”). These are made up of articles that are reviewed by an editorial panel of those recognized experts. Some larger examples of this include JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association) and the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 
  • University published or sponsored papers – This one is not a slam dunk automatic good source, but if the source site is educational (usually designated by ending with .edu), chances are excellent that it is a vetted and proper source to cite.

Then there are the “gray areas” – sites like History.com, and many nonprofit agencies (.org) are often considered to be reliable sources. These are the ones you may need to ask about. Even if they have biases, they are likely to provide data that is verifiable. But the easiest way to ensure compliance in research sources is to use a college (and sometimes high school) library’s databases to search. Most of those search engines have a filter to only show peer reviewed journals, if you decide to use it.

And finally, the how-to-use-Wiki tip I promised up there: In the more reliable Wiki articles, you will often find their facts annotated and cited. That is, the Wiki author gives where he/she found their info. Simply copy down the site source and go to it and use it yourself.