Research for Writers, #2: In Defense of Wikipedia

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


Ah, Wikipedia. Bane of every teacher who has to grade student papers, butt of a thousand jokes. Not a good source for research, right?

Actually, I love Wikipedia. It’s an amazing resource, one I make extensive use of. The trick is, you need to know its strengths and weaknesses, and how to get the most out of what it can offer.

But, you say, isn’t Wikipedia riddled with errors?

Yes and no. Back in 2005, a study published in Nature found that the prevalence of errors in Wikipedia was roughly comparable to those in the Encylopedia Britannica. The people who run the site have put a lot of effort into instituting software and social mechanisms that help improve quality, and it’s paid off. Sure, there are still errors, but in my experience, they generally fall into three categories:

1) Arguments over a contentious topic, where lots of people with extremely passionate views are in mid-war over their subject. These often have flags at the top indicating that there’s something of the sort underway. If you’re researching current events, say, or things of a sensitive political nature, this can be a problem, but I generally haven’t found it to be an issue in scientific or historical research.

2) Rough draft articles, where it looks like one person with a rudimentary knowledge of the subject has thrown together a few paragraphs of info. These usually have a “cleanup” flag at the top, or one saying “needs attention from an expert on the subject.” Even if they don’t, you can generally recognize them just by their roughness.

3) Vandalism. Somebody comes in and edits the page to say that Julius Caesar was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. I’ve never actually seen this happen, because the wiki setup means these kinds of changes can easily be reverted by one of the (highly alert) editors.

So why do teachers try to steer their students away from Wikipedia? Two reasons, in my experience. One is that they don’t want their students to only crib from there; they need to learn how to do research properly. The other is that while Wikipedia is a really good source for facts, it’s a terrible source for analysis of those facts. You can find out what happened in the English Civil War, but if you want to know why the English Civil War happened, you generally need to look in a book.

Okay, so those are the flaws. What about the merits?

Have you ever been driving, and your car gets stuck in the mud or snow? Your wheels spin uselessly as you try to drive forward, slicking the ground even more. But if you can get just a bit of traction — by shoving sticks under the wheel, maybe, or gravel — then that instant of grip, even if it’s brief, can be enough to get you rolling again.

My take on Wikipedia is that it’s a fantastic place to start your research, because it can give you that little bit of traction you need to move forward. Its setup means there’s no practical limitation on what they can devote a page to — unlike, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica. Their list pages are particularly fabulous: you can find a list of colossal sculpture in situ (which is to say, things like Mt. Rushmore), or a list of extant baronetcies, or a list of eighteenth-century British periodicals. Pages like that can lead you to pages you wouldn’t have known to search for, which lead you on, and on again. (As a friend of mine once said, the awesome thing about Wikipedia is that it works the way your brain does, rambling on from one topic to the next, so that you start off reading about plate tectonics and end up on heritage railways.)

Wikipedia can provide you with the names, dates, or technical terms you need to read about in more detail. It can link you to outside sources that explore what you’re looking for, giving you the kind of information that the site itself isn’t so good for. Check the footnotes and bibliography; the books, articles, and websites listed there may form Step Two of your research process. All of this is traction: you don’t want to stop there, unless all you need is basic info, but it’s a perfectly fine place to start.

The funny thing is, Wikipedia can even be helpful when it’s wrong. When I was writing Midnight Never Come, I wanted to know who the Lord Steward for the English court was in 1590. The relevant Wikipedia page listed “William Paulet, Lord St John of Basing” as holding that post from 1588.1603. Which gave me a name — but I wanted to know who he was, whether he was an old man or a young one, etc. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a page on Wikipedia. No fear: I looked him up on Google. I no longer remember my exact query, and after this long the results are probably different anyway, but I know one of the sites it pointed me at was the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Which was behind a paywall; fortunately, it transpired that my university provided access. Only when I went digging around in the DNB, I couldn’t find the guy! So I searched for the phrase “Lord Steward,” and to make a long story short (too late, I know), I found out that there was no Lord Steward appointed after Leicester died in 1588. Wikipedia was wrong . . . but its wrongness had led me to what became my third most commonly-used site while researching the Onyx Court books (just behind the Oxford English Dictionary, and Wikipedia itself).

(And writing this up reminded me that the Lord Steward article was still wrong, years later. I just fixed it: and thus Wikipedia becomes more accurate.)

So yeah: Wikipedia isn’t perfect. No source is. What’s more important is that Wikipedia is dead useful — especially if you use it right.