I think Wikipedia gets a bad rap.
Yes, I know that the content is created by users, like you and me, instead of by professional scholars. But the vast majority of people edit articles they know a lot about and they improve them. Wikipedia changes all the time, and the trend is a better and better encyclopedia.
Yes, people occasionally vandalize it. Most vandalism is corrected within minutes. Sometimes articles get edited by people with a definite bias — these get flagged as not being neutral point of view. Sometimes there are edit wars — these eventually die down. That does not take away from the fact that Wikipedia is a great resource, and is almost always accurate.
Britannica also costs a lot to access (about $70 per year at this time), while Wikipedia is free. Britannica has 40 thousand articles (print version) / 120 thousand articles (online version), while Wikipedia has over 4 million articles. This is really comparing apples to oranges, since Britannica (probably) isn’t interested in making articles on television shows like Babylon 5 and many other non-scholarly things that appear in Wikipedia. These non-scholarly articles are still useful to many people, and make Wikipedia more useful overall.
One often overlooked part of Wikipedia is the Simple Wikipedia. This is a version of Wikipedia written to be simpler to understand. It doesn’t contain as many articles, but if the regular article is too advanced (as happens when PhDs contribute to an article in their field), there may be an article in the simple Wikipedia that is more accessible. Look on the left for a language called “Simple English”. This will point to the simpler version of the article you’re looking at. If it isn’t there, then no one has made it yet.
But why is Wikipedia bad for students?
Many teachers tell students not to use any encyclopedias when doing research. My first wife was a reference librarian and this drove her crazy. Encyclopedias a made for doing research. They are supposed to be the first thing you look at when doing research. Most teachers don’t want a student to only use encyclopedias because the lazy will just stop there. But for almost all of the research most people do, an encyclopedia should be the first place to look.
Many teachers tell kids not to use Wikipedia. And I think that’s causing students to miss out. Wikipedia is not a primary source; it was never intended to be one. It is a great location for getting good starting information on a topic. Most articles also have a References section that include links to scholarly information that are perfectly good sources for research. These links may be wonderful primary sources.
If you do want to cite Wikipedia, there is a “cite this page” link in the Toolbox on the left. You will be told that Wikipedia is not a primary, nor a secondary source. It’s a tertiary source, and probably shouldn’t be cited. It also tell you that the content is community created and may be incorrect. This page will include a link to a static version of the article. This link won’t include future edits to the page, so you don’t have to worry about future changes.
The world is constantly changing. New information is discovered all the time. If you used the print version of Encyclopedia Britannica, you were using information that was out of date when it was printed, and the world has changed out from under it. Wikipedia is a living encyclopedia that changes as the world changes.
Since I first wrote this article, I’ve found that college professors assign creating or improve Wikipedia pages to students, and that Wikipedia pages have been cited in over 400 judicial opinions. Wikipedia is being taken more seriously. Hopefully it will lose its stigma in education.
An article by the Washington Post explains how science shows that Wikipedia is one of the best places in the internet.