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The Role of Wikipedia and Other Encyclopedias

Wikipedia is massive and convenient to use, and that is why just about everyone uses it. But use it carefully and critically.

Let's compare and contrast Oxford encyclopedias with Wikipedia. Editors guarantee that all the articles in Oxford encyclopedias are written by credentialed experts and reviewed by editors. That is not the case with Wikipedia. Volunteers write the content for Wikipedia. Some articles in Wikipedia are written by highly credentialed people; some are not. Each article must be evaluated on its own merits.

Use encyclopedia articles, including Wikipedia articles, as starting points . . .

  • to get an overview
  • to get an initial bibliography
  • to identify terms and vocabulary that might help you search databases

Encyclopedia articles are tertiary sources. They usually point you to some secondary sources which in turn point you to the primary sources. Secondary sources interpret and synthesize primary sources. Read and cite the secondary sources, but base your conclusions on the primary sources.