Wikipedia – Use and Abuse

Due to its dominance on the Internet market, Wikipedia is the first port of call for the majority of information gatherers; this even includes academics and students alike.  Universities have gone in the direction of telling student to avoid it at all costs, considering this better than blindly accepting it at face value as so many do (one needs to only look at the Blogs of so called ‘experts’ to see the amount of Wikipedia quotes and references).  I think both approaches are wrong.

Wikipedia is useful due to what is at the bottom of the page; the reference section.  If it is a good article it will have a mountain of references, most will be newspaper articles or other websites which can be either read or ignored; however, if you look at the primary sources there you have the beginnings of you bibliography – at least the first major bit of reading you need to do.

For instance: I am looking into the Theban Sacred Band, an elite fighting force of Ancient Greece that within 40 years of inception was able to defeat the Spartans over, and over again.  I did not know what the major primary sources that discuss them were , so type ‘Sacred Band of Thebes’ into Wikipedia and scroll to the bottom – you will see the same reference over and over, Plutarch, “[Life of] Pelopidas”.  This is as good a start as anywhere else – so that is where I went, and now the research begins.

The Wikipedia articles themselves are generally full of opinion and conjecture, that of the writer or of authors s/he has read, but the reference section is a haven of knowledge that allows your research to grow.  So rather than ignore Wikipedia, or accept it at face value, we can use the reference section to our own advantage, both to analyse the validity of the article and to begin our own research.

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