• 3-minute read
  • 24th April 2017

Using Online Sources (The Perils of Wikipedia)

The internet means we now have a world of information at our fingertips. In theory, this makes researching essays easier than ever.

Assuming you can avoid getting distracted, that is.
Assuming you can avoid getting distracted.

The problem is that not every website is reliable, especially for academic writing. So how should you use online sources in this crazy, post-truth world?

Ask Yourself: Is This Academic?

As well as citing sources correctly, you must make sure all online sources you use are reliable. The best way to do this is to stick to established academic sites. So if you’ve found an article via a well-known journal database, you can usually trust it. Likewise, if the site is run by a university, such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it should be fine.

Despite what this statue suggests, most philosophers don't work in the nude. (Photo: Drflet/wikimedia)
Most non-statue philosophers don’t work in the nude.
(Photo: Drflet/wikimedia)

More generally, you can often tell how reliable an online source is by checking the qualifications of the author. If they’re a professor at a respected university with a long list of credentials, great! If they’re a self-declared ‘expert’ with no qualifications and only self-published work, maybe look elsewhere.

Gauging the tone of the writing can also help: if it’s objective and even-handed, there’s a stronger chance of it being suitable than if it’s biased or emotive.

Another factor is whether an online article has links to other sources. If it does, you can check the information. If it doesn’t, you have no way of knowing whether it is trustworthy. So steer clear of sources without citations!

Non-Academic Sources

There are occasions when citing a non-academic source is okay. But even then, you need to check online sources carefully! For example, if you are writing about something in the news, you should try to find a quality source (so the Guardian or the BBC is probably better than the Daily Star).

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Similarly, if you’re writing about a company, you should go to their site. You might come across some juicy gossip on someone’s blog, but this doesn’t mean it’s suitable for academic writing!

How to Use Wikipedia

Wikipedia is not an academic source. There’s even a page on Wikipedia that says ‘Wikipedia is not considered a credible source’. Whether we can trust that page is hard to judge, since it is on Wikipedia. And as we’ve established, Wikipedia isn’t a credible source.

At least they have citations for its unreliability.
At least they have citations for its unreliability.

Paradoxes aside, anyone can edit Wikipedia so it isn’t always reliable. Despite this, many students turn to Wikipedia when they need to look something up.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The question is how you do it. If you find something relevant to your work on Wikipedia, you need to check the cited sources (indicated with little numbers in square brackets).

These should point you to other books, articles or websites that might be more appropriate for use in academic writing. If you see the [citation needed] tag, though, it’s time to look elsewhere!

Handy stickers for dedicated fact checkers. (Photo: Tfinc/wikimedia)
Handy stickers for dedicated fact checkers.
(Photo: Tfinc/wikimedia)

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