How to Use Wikipedia Citations in Research Papers

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Research papers are a staple project in almost every level of academics. Research papers are a great learning exercise because it is less structured than a fill-in-the-blank or multiple-choice type of homework and because it requires deep immersion and self-navigation of a topic. 

The topic of the paper may be assigned by the teacher or may be chosen by the student, but other than the topic choice and the style of reference citation, the direction of the paper is often decided by the student. 

In order to write a good paper that will achieve its purpose and earn a good grade, the student must read lots of articles and documents, many source materials, and learn a lot about the subject. Once a broad understanding of the topic is gained, an outline of the final paper may be drafted that can help direct further research into specific aspects of the broader topic. 

From that point, it is important to read even more about the subject, and to keep track of quotations and sections that may be used as reference material in the research paper and to add the source attribution information to a running list of sources or works cited. 

All of this research and decision-making related to producing a final written work requires and practices critical thinking and evaluation skills. While a person may not be writing research papers after they complete their schooling and transition into the world of work, those underlying skills of research and ethical attribution, along with writing craft, will be incredibly important to life and career success.

In the beginning of the project, when you are just getting acquainted with the topic and each of its possible sub-topics, people often look to encyclopedia entries. Those entries provide a great summary to prime you for further research. 

In today’s world, people mostly conduct their research online, and so they turn to online encyclopedias. And the world’s greatest online encyclopedia is Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia. The entries there are often very detailed and well researched, and for many projects, seem to provide all the information one might need to complete their research paper. 

There is a problem with this, however. 

First of all, encyclopedia entries of any sort, whether they be online or physical bound volume, are not allowed to be cited sources in a research paper, because they are simply summaries of subjects and not primary documents. 

And in addition to that, Wikipedia is particularly prohibited as a source because it is written by anyone who wishes to write for it. Wikipedia articles can be edited by anyone at any time and can be written with bad information in an attempt to deceive readers or simply because the writer was misinformed about the topic. 

While it is true that community writing and editing is the process with Wikipedia, the system for reviewing and approving changes to articles has become much more refined over time and most edits now require some sort of approval from others before going live. In this way, checks and balances are in place to ensure the best information on all topics is what is displayed on the website for readers.

After reading the Wikipedia article on the topic of the research paper, it seems like a huge waste not to use the content of the article as source material to reference, as it is so detailed, complete, and well-written. But there is a way to utilize that Wikipedia article for your research paper and have it be completely approved by your instructor. 

The secret is to use the Wikipedia article as a guide to all of the available source material out there

Nearly every sentence or thought written on Wikipedia requires a source reference to back up what the author is writing, to prove that they aren’t simply writing misinformation to trick people. If you look at the end of many sentences within the article, you will see a blue, hyperlinked number in brackets, which is referring to the source of that information. 

Snippet of a Wikipedia Article showing the Reference number system

If you click that number, it will take you to the bottom of the article, in the References section, to that specific works cited entry. There you can read the standard information such as author, article title, work title, date, etc. You can usually also find a link to the source on its own website. 

Example of a Wikipedia References section

Click that link to follow it to the source of the information you found useful within the Wikipedia article. You can now read that reference article in whole, potentially learning even more about your paper’s topic, or you can skim to find the part that you need for your paper, then use that source in your research paper’s references section. 

Usually Wikipedia articles have a huge number of linked sources, so you can probably write most research papers using only the sources referenced in the Wikipedia article. This is a totally ethical method of performing research and developing sources for your paper that your teacher will be fine with. 

In this method, you are not using Wikipedia as a source (it is never referenced in your works cited page), but instead as a guide (expertly curated by a wide community) to the many acceptable references to be found in the massive online environment. When you use Wikipedia in this way, it doesn’t feel like a waste of time at all to read the article and can be a very big help in the development of your final paper.

Research papers are all about showing what you learned in your self-directed research and using the words and works of others to back up what you believe about the topic. By using citations and references to others, you are not simply writing an article about your opinions, but you are creating a firm and believable argument about your beliefs on the topic. 

The process of learning to write a research paper is very valuable and teaches many useful skills, so it will continue to be assigned by teachers into the future. Hopefully this method I’ve explained will help you to better research your topic and save you time in creating a list of sources to reference.

Do you enjoy writing research papers? Do you know of an even better way to find sources to reference in your writing? Let me know in the comments!

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