Chapter 1: Getting started with research

1.8 Finding background information in Wikipedia

You probably use Wikipedia often. It is a top result in many Google searches, and you may have learned a lot using Wikipedia, despite being told not to use it for research. It can actually serve as a helpful source of background information on a variety of topics. Here are a few ways you can use Wikipedia to help your research.

As a starting point

Wikipedia itself suggests it be used as a starting point and not an end. You can use it to learn vocabulary or technical terms for an unfamiliar topic. Wikipedia is handy for finding dates and timelines for historical events, or for outlining aspects of a topic you had not yet considered.

For related information

Wikipedia can also help you understand how your research question fits into a broader topic. Look for related pages linked within an article and explore other suggestions that appear in your initial search. You may come across disambiguation pages as well, which can help you find different entries for a term that has multiple meanings (e.g. Hologram). These practices can be particularly useful when developing your research question.

To find more sources

Finally, Wikipedia can be useful for finding references to reliable sources such as scholarly books and articles. Most articles have a list of linked references and notes that you can use to verify Wikipedia’s content. Once you’ve found adequate background information on your topic from Wikipedia, you can explore other scholarly and direct sources to get a more complete picture of your topic.

Don’t stop at Wikipedia

Although Wikipedia can be a great resource for background information, not all topics have the same amount of depth or coverage. Entries on popular topics, such as social networking, TV shows, and extreme sports, tend to have more detail. In addition, Wikipedia contains entries on various academic topics, with generally the same level of detail as traditional encyclopedias. These academic entries tend to be summaries and broad overviews because original research is deliberately not included in Wikipedia. When looking for more detailed subject knowledge, such as new theories, analyses, and interpretations to back up your projects, you would be better served by looking in scholarly materials such as journals and books rather than an encyclopedia.

Wikipedia is a crowdsourced encyclopedia, which means anyone can create and edit content. This is both a strength and a weakness. One of the most fundamental ways the scholarly community determines the reliability and authority of information is by knowing the scholarly or professional credentials of authors. Wikipedia articles are usually signed only with a username or pseudonym. You can’t tell who the authors or editors are or what qualifies them to write on the topic, if they are qualified at all. A survey of Wikipedia contributors found that for 45% of them, the highest degree earned was high school or less.[1]

It’s also important to know who is contributing to Wikipedia because that informs what content is available. This is true of all research, but particularly for a community-managed resource like Wikipedia. A large majority of Wikipedia contributors have self-identified as male on their profiles and in several studies.[2],[3] How might this affect the articles available and the biases found within? What voices are contributing or being excluded, particularly as they relate to race, sex, gender, and other social issues? Keep this in mind as you’re browsing Wikipedia. Just because there is no article about a specific topic yet, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important or deserving of focus.

Both its strengths and weaknesses are linked to the fact that Wikipedia is open to anyone, has a large contributor base, and contains articles written by consensus. This allows authors more freedom over the sharing of information, but also provides a platform for those with negative or exclusionary views, or even false information that may not be vetted by the scholarly community. Unless you yourself are already an expert on the topic you’re reading about, there’s no way to quickly verify the accuracy of a Wikipedia article without consulting other sources on the subject.


  1. Glott, R., Schmidt, P., & Ghosh, R. (2010). Wikipedia survey: Overview of results. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20110728182835/http://www.wikipediastudy.org/docs/Wikipedia_Overview_15March2010-FINAL.pdf
  2. Wikimedia users. (2019, July 1). User preferences: gender. Retrieved August 16, 2021 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Database_reports/User_preferences#Gender
  3. Glott, R., Schmidt, P., & Ghosh, R. (2010). Wikipedia survey: Overview of results. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20110728182835/http://www.wikipediastudy.org/docs/Wikipedia_Overview_15March2010-FINAL.pdf

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Library 160: Introduction to College-Level Research by Iowa State University Library Instruction Services is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.