Wikipedia and Information Literacy: Step 5 to Information Literacy

While teaching college reading courses, I have found that it is essential for students to master how they have interpreted and used information that they have read. Many educational institutions require their students to use online applications, such as Pearson’s My Reading Lab, Cengage’s Aplia, or PLATO by PLATO Learning, Inc., to enforce the reading comprehension skills they had learned in class. Through observation, I have noticed how the students have rushed to complete these assignments without noticing what they had learned. The students stressed out about whether the assignment was finished rather than if they had a mastery of the material discussed in the assignment. One source that the students try to use in their papers is Wikipedia.

Wikipedia research usage

Because of the creative spirits of some of the members, some Wikipedia entries can become corrupt. Are there sufficient watchdogs in Wikipedia to stop wrong information from being posted? Luckily, other members can “red flag” entries that have questionable content. This alerts problematic entries to Wikipedia editors. In a survey, conducted in December 2009, participants stated that they used Wikipedia for the following research:

  1. Definitions
  2. Historical Dates
  3. Biographies
  4. See Also References (pointers to other sources of information)
  5. Geography

These have been generally the same reasons that my students have given for searching Wikipedia. Throughout the semester, I work on each student to become an information literate warrior. If they are determined to use Wikipedia, then they must ask themselves these questions:

  1. Who posted the content?
  2. What is the content posted?
  3. When was this content current?
  4. What other academic sources are used to support this content?

Who posted the content?

Are they qualified subject matter specialists? Are they representing a reputable entity known to have and/or researched this type of information? Some institutions and associations have posted pages dedicated to their subject areas. They also have a dedicated staff member to monitor and maintain the pages so that they always have the correct information for their staff, members and public online community. Wikipedia is a great place to start when looking for information. If online members use it for technical issues, they may find themselves constantly updating the pages with those issues stated in their content. Engineering pages can be updated and maintained by online members who have that knowledge. How many qualified people are actually contributing to Wikipedia? If more contributors are subject specialists for those articles, then Wikipedia could be a professional learning network full of possibilities. The negative light is that anyone can put themselves into Wikipedia and put their accomplishments in the entry. Anyone can edit that entry and anyone can post anything to any entry.

What is the content posted?

After finding out if the contributor of the content was reputable, the students would have to see if the content was carefully researched? What are the sources for this content? Participants, in the 2009 survey, viewed Wikipedia as a generic online encyclopedia. They did not see any academic or scientific quality implied. Wikipedia for a general subject overview is helpful through its reference section. Participants believed that the inaccuracies within Wikipedia are no different than the errors you may find in printed reference sources. One participant remembered how librarians use to update their printed reference sources by handwriting new information into the printed source. Wikipedia organizes information pertaining to different subject areas into specific pages with a search engine attached. It is a starting point for researchers looking for information on a subject that is unknown to them. Wikipedia, for some participants, is used when they would be desperate to find sources for their projects. Participants discussed the option of using Wikipedia for trivia facts on their personal time and not on the job. Personal searches can also find inaccurate information about actors or politicians being dead when they are very much alive.

When was this content current?

If the sources listed for the content are older than 5 years old, then the student would need to reanalyze if this content is worth using. The participants said that Wikipedia should not be used as the primary source. It should be used as a guide to help you get your footing in the research subject area that you are pursuing. If it can be verified that the pages you need are being maintained by subject specialists (people skilled and have knowledge in that subject area), then you may want to use the page but cite the other sources that are scholarly and verified to have accurate information.

What other academic sources are used to support this content?

It all depends on the content involved. Participants were found to use Wikipedia frequently but as a last resort when there were little to no reference links listed in the entries. A participant remembered how teachers would deduct points from papers if students used an encyclopedia as a reference source. Wikipedia can be viewed as an encyclopedic source. It should be cited as little as possible. All participants emphasized their use of listed references.

The Information Literate Warrior

After my students determined the answer to the above 4 questions, they had a better handle on understanding information needed for whatever research they were performing. These questions helped my students to come closer to becoming the information literate warrior but they still had much more work ahead of them to actually claim this title.

See the the next installment of Steps on Becoming Information Literatehere.


Weldon, Lorette S.J., Research and Social Networking, 2010, available through

Editor’s Note – this article first published in Computer Savviness – and republished with the author’s permission.

Posted in: Internet Resources - Web Links, Internet Trends, Open Source, Search Engines