Monday, March 7, 2011

Research for Writers Level One: Wikipedia

There are those, like my buddy Steve, who would tell you that Wikipedia is not really research.

They're right.

That's why it's only level one.

Wikipedia, although it is a great resource for certain things, cannot be trusted to the point where you should use it as your exclusive source for information. The nature of a wiki means that it can be edited by almost anyone, and therefore the reliability of the information is low. You'll find, if you read and use Wikipedia often, that certain types of articles are more reliable than others.

Articles on a place, like the main Kyoto, Japan article, or articles on a historical event, like the main American Civil War article, tend to be based on facts that cannot be disputed, and therefore are usually relatively reliable. Articles on a person, especially one who is still living, and even more especially one who is politically or religiously active, tend to be incredibly unreliable. For example, the Jeremiah Wright Controversy article, being both political and religious, is one of the most highly edited pages on Wikipedia.

All that being said, Wikipedia does have its uses, even when it comes to research for writing fiction. My favorite use of Wikipedia is as a way to check my memory. I'm the type of guy whose head is filled with useless facts that I have no idea why I remember. Some of them are accurate, others are not. I often use Wikipedia as a very basic reference to check whether I remember something correctly.

Another great use is to discover some of the articles and websites that we will cover tomorrow, in Research for Writers Level Two. Wikipedia has two sections at the bottom of almost every article that will lead you to better, more detailed information. References will lead you to books, using their title and ISBN, that were either referenced in the writing of the article, or are heavily related to the topic covered. External links will take you to websites that are outside of Wikipedia, and are related to the topic in the article. The quality of these external websites and the information they provide can vary widely.

So that's it for today. Be sure to come back all week for the series on research for writers. We're not done with tropes yet either, I just have to do some more, well ... research.

37 comments:

Jessica Bell said...

Can it really be edited by anyone? I didn't know that. I thought there were particular people who were designated for that. Very interesting ... :o) Hope you are well. I've been AWOL coz I've had the flu. Sorry. ;-/ Um ... what are tropes? I suppose I should back track your posts!

Josin L. McQuein said...

Exactly. Wikipedia's a terrific touchstone for information, but it's also a bit like the remake of that old Disney movie "The computer wore tennis shoes" where some kid absorbed the entire contents of a wiki-like site into his brain and a few of the "known" facts were off (with "hilarious"... or not... results!)

Laura Pauling said...

I might look at wiki for basic facts or an overall look at something or to remember some useless fact but that's about it. It's not a bad place to start but it's a bad place to stay and overuse.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I always check the external links because they tend to lead to something more accurate.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great post. I have been using Wikepedia and other useful blog sites in researching for my next story. And you're right the links at the bottom are helpful. Can't wait to read more about research tomorrow.

Melissa said...

I totally use wikipedia for their reference list! It comes in handy for school when I have a topic to research and no idea where I can find any of the books! (Or even what they are.)

Erica Mitchell-Spickard said...

It definately is level one. I use it for a quick refresher or I use it for the external links. Another time I use it is to guide me through research until I hit upon something I hadn't thought of that could be beneficial. For instance, I am having to research a deck of playing cards and found each link lead me some place new and cool and then I hit the external links and started digging further...elsewhere.

Katie Mills said...

really great heads up- I'd never thought about that! And it's true that more detailed and authentic info is available through references. Really great post Matt!

Sarah said...

I find Wikipedia quite useful, but yes, it is not an objective, totally trustworthy source. One example--I recently posted on my blog about self-esteem, and when I took a look at the Wikipedia page on self-esteem, I saw it was obviously written by folks who had a very clear bias ... but I'd spent time reading up on the research and I don't think I would have recognized that bias otherwise. This is a great and useful post!

Anne Gallagher said...

I check out Wiki for the obvious and then go on to the external links. From there I generally head to the library. Gotta love those books.

Suzie F. said...

Great post, Matt.

I also use it to refresh my memory, especially concerning dates.

Wiki is a helpful stepping stone that I use to find reliable sources.

aspiring_x said...

i am a TOTAL wiki addict! i swear i can lose HOURS clicking link after link after link.
in regards to the quality of information- i'm kinda distrustful of most sources. peole can try to be as unbiased as they possibly can- but biases always sneak in. and the nature of wiki really lends itself to wigglyjiggly reliability. sometimes i watch tosh.0 (i'm totally embarassed to admit that!) but the host made a joke of asking his audience to go mess with the show's page- the results were pretty wild, and then wiki locked his page. but in general- some of the pages are really trustworthy. my father (the phd) says that most of the scientific and mathematic pages he frequents are pretty acurate.

salarsenッ said...

You make a great point about Wikipedia. Use it; just be careful how much you rely on it. Whenever I find something interesting on Wiki that pertains to my current WIP, I always use at least two more references. It can be edited by anyone. It was my 17yr-old son who informed me about that. See, Matt, he is good for something. LOL

L.G.Smith said...

Wikipedia is like a quick desk reference for looking up certain facts. I always use it as a starting point when I research anything because its like the Reader's Digest condensed version with links. If I don't know anything about a topic it gives me a good base to start with.

It's also fun to click on the random article button and see what comes up. If you're stuck on story ideas, you can get lost for hours doing that.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I love using Wikipedia as a starting point, or like you said Matt, to nudge my memory about something. But it isn't the only resource I use. I still love the public library and more credible resources.

Emily White said...

I'm like you--I usually only use wikipedia to verify information I was already pretty certain of. It takes a bit of work, but there are usually much better sources to be found out there.

Jess said...

Oh goody! I'm looking forward to more research posts (am currently in the midst of it). Thanks Matt!

Joanne Brothwell said...

I have used Wikipedia for research, but only to generate fictional ideas. I would never use it if I needed true facts, I've seen things on there that are completely wrong!

Sommer Leigh said...

I tend to use Wikipedia for a jumping off point - I can pick up names, dates, places, event names all in one spot. Then I take those key words to a more reliable source and research from there.

Unless I'm researching pop culture because I have some song stuck in my head or I can't remember the actor's name in a movie, then Wikipedia is like my Bible. Useless information I will never need to know? Yes please!

Old Kitty said...

..and always use your libraries and librarians in conjuction with referencing and research. :-)

Take care
x

Jared Larson said...

I totally agree with you, Matt. Great post and I'm excited that you're touching on these points this week about research. I look forward to more.

Bish Denham said...

Yep, I like those references. It's a quick easy place to get started.

Hannah Kincade said...

I use wikipedia to get me started but mostly, I have a variety of reference books at home that I use. I love doing research but I'm a dork like that.

Lydia K said...

Good points. I usually use Wikipedia as a launching point for more in depth research, but on stuff that very factual, like you said.

It's amazing how Wiki always show up at the top of any search you do.

Amanda said...

I find Wikepedia VERY frustrating. Really, any online research makes me twitch. I'd much rather get my info from a solid, reliable source. Something bound and straight off a library shelf.

maine character said...

I've edited a few pages there, like an entry on a novel that said it took place in the wrong city.

It's great for a quick look at someone's bibliography, or what episodes of a show you've missed.

And yeah, the external links are great - like the Douglas Adams one has a video of a lecture he did. The first 40 minutes are excellent.

Talli Roland said...

Yes, it is what it is, but I do love me some Wikipedia! :)

Jaydee Morgan said...

Good to know these things. Too bad there wasn't a one-stop shop for people like me who hate researching.

Christina Lee said...

True- after I saw a help wanted ad for writers on WIKI, I always remember that!

And this: "I'm the type of guy whose head is filled with useless facts that I have no idea why I remember," is why we are friends-ha!

LTM said...

finally! Gah. OK, so I was trying to say I get lots of "other" ideas from researching on Wikipedia--but you're right. Even folks like Weird Al can edit it. Must use caution~

good stuff, Matty! :o) <3

Becca Puglisi said...

Those sources at the end of Wiki articles are often really really helpful. Thanks for writing about this.

As a historical fiction lover, I'm always on the lookout for good research techniques and sources. I'll definitely be reading the other posts in this series :)

Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

Kelly said...

I actually use Wiki a lot, but I realize everything may not be 100% accurate. So I won't be using it to research for any nonfiction books. :)
It's a quick and easy resource.

M Pax said...

Wiki is good as a quick reference, as you said. Getting lost in the external links, etc ... is fun.

There are other sites that have the same exact info as wiki, which sometimes makes research frustrating on the nets.

Colene Murphy said...

Exactly. I like to look at things like that or to find an actor that was in a particular show or something this is trustworthy info.

Copyboy said...

I feel like a jerk now. 90% of my blog posts and bar bets have been used and settled in Wiki land. Wow!

Donna Hole said...

I spend more time clicking the links on wiki than reading the actual articles. But I didn't know just anyone could edit it.

Interesting; my head is full of useless trivia too. :)

I remember reading some of your listed headlines on your blogversary post. Happy Blogversary, BTW. Sorry I missed it yesterday.

......dhole

Jen said...

Wiki is a fantastic place to start researching, for places, dates and things, but only ever as a jumping off point. My sister is a high school history teacher, and is constantly having to tell the kids not to cite Wiki in their bibliography. They just can't get their head around the fact that back in the old days we used to go to a library, check out a stack of books, and get a variety of opinions and interpretations. It's kind of worrying that so many of her kids trust whatever they read on the internet without thinking critically about the bias or agenda of the author.