Thursday, November 7, 2013

Thing 4: Wikipedia

xkcd.com comic: "Misconceptions"
Wikipedia is an incredibly complicated topic. Some teachers forbid anyone to use it at all in their research. Other people (quite accurately) talk about some of the issues in Wikipedia culture and current process that are making it less useful than it could be. (And while I've picked an xkcd comic here that highlights what Wikipedia can be great for, there are others that highlight some of the issues, including this one about the danger of the citation ecosystem and this one about the dangers of trusting apparent citations.)

However, there are times when I find it an incredibly useful starting place (never my only source for research), and today Thing 4 is going to give you a quick overview, talk about some ways to use Wikipedia, and then give some screenshots to show you parts of the site you might not have clicked on.

A quick overview: 

What's a wiki? Wiki is a term for a particular kind of online tool that allows people to collaborate on information. It uses some specific markup language to create links to other pages on the wiki and to other sources, and you can also format information in different ways. Pages can be grouped together by categories, and there are also ways to make tables, include images or other documents, and search for a specific topic or term.

Some wikis are huge (Wikipedia has over four million pages in English), but many people use wiki software for smaller projects like coordinating within a department, documenting how things work, or keeping track of different kinds of information.

First tip: Many of the possible issues with the information in Wikipedia are an issue in other kinds of sources too - they're just less obvious. Just like there are great books out there and lousy books, or excellent peer-reviewed articles and quick fluff news pieces, you need to evaluate the actual content before you use it in your research.

What's Wikipedia? Wikipedia has been running since 2001. It is a volunteer project with over 77,000 active contributors. Like any really huge project (that's about 10 times the population of Farmington!) it has rules and policies to help things run smoothly. You can learn more about that on the About page for the English Wikipedia.

Of course, with that many people working, there are sometimes differences of opinion, and sometimes a rule or policy gets put into place that works really well for some topics but not for others. Plus, because it's done by volunteers, some entries have really amazing information, and others have almost nothing. Some topics also lend themselves to having a verifiable reliable source than others, too.

Second tip: You don't need to understand all the specific policies and guidelines to use Wikipedia as a resource, but it's good to remember there are some, and that they may lead to decisions that don't make much sense to the casual reader or user.

 

How can it support research? 

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia - and you should never use an encyclopedia as your only source for academic research. However, you can use it to get a better sense of a topic and help your research process. I use Wikipedia all the time to:
  • Get context for a historical event (when and where it occurred, who the major figures are.) 
  • Find the terms used within a specific field for a particular topic, so I can do better searches in other research tools. (As a reference librarian, I often get asked about subjects where I don't know the jargon of the field well.)
  • Look at the references for an article to find relevant primary and secondary sources on the topic so I can read them and make my own decisions about what they say.
  • Learn more about an area or region (population, major features, more than just where it is.)
  • Check the spelling of a name. 
  • Figure out what the next book in a series is. 
  • And of course, to find out about random topics that come up in conversation. 
I also find some tools, like the "On this day" and "In the news" sections featured on Wikipedia's front page to be a good way to brush up on current topics of interest or historical trivia. 

     

    Let's take a tour: 

    November 7th happens to be the anniversary of the day that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were probably killed in Bolivia in 1905, and the entry allows me to show off many of the interesting tools of Wikipedia. There'll be lots of images in this part, so click on the 'more' to get the images. If you're already familiar with the basics of Wikipedia, you can skip down to the Interesting Tools for the parts many people don't know about

    An overview:
    Before we get into the details, let's look at the overall layout of a Wikipedia page. On this image you can see:
    • A sidebar column on the left that has important links, including one that says "Tools" 
    • The title of the article.
    • Above the title, there are tabs for the Article, Talk, Read, Edit, and View History. (We'll talk about all of these in more detail.) There is also a search box. 
    In the article itself, you can see some ways of organizing information. On the left, there is a table of contents (that is automatically created by the wiki software.) On the right, there is a photograph of Butch Cassidy with a summary of information underneath like his birth and death dates and other details. (This is called an infobox.)


    Screenshot of the beginning of the Wikipedia entry for Butch Cassidy (as on 11/4/13) with annotation highlights.
    Beginning of the Wikipedia entry for Butch Cassidy (as on 11/4/13) with annotation highlights.
    At the end of the article, we get some other kinds of information.
    1. The article lists other entries that might also have useful information (in this case, the article about Cassidy's criminal gang, about the Sundance kid, and two widely known movies.) 
    2. The References section gives the citations for information used in the article. (Just like you have to cite your sources in a research paper, Wikipedia requires that information be cited.)
    3. External links give you additional sources including images, articles, and primary documents.
    4. The last section shows you the categories this page is in, which can be very helpful if you want to browse for similar entries.
    Screenshot of the Wikipedia article for Butch Cassidy (as on 11/4/13) with numbers in the left column.
    End of the Wikipedia article for Butch Cassidy (as on 11/4/13) with numbers in the left column.
    The content:
    As you can see in the image below, the article begins with a summary. It also tells you that if you want something else named Butch Cassidy, where you can find it, and it links to other relevant pages in the text. You can click on any of these links to go to those specific pages. 
    Beginning of Wikipedia article for Butch Cassidy (as on 11/4/13)

     

    Interesting tools:

    Because Wikipedia is a collaborative and ever-changing project, there have to be ways for people to talk about the information, and to see what other people have changed. These pages (the Talk and History pages for each article) can give you some great insight into the topic.

    References:
    The references are a great place to find additional sources - but be careful! If you look at the references in the Butch Cassidy article you'll see that some of them come from primary sources or historical societies, but others come from other websites. You'll want to look at each source carefully and evaluate it, just like you would if you did a web search or found a list of citations in a journal article. However, even a general or non-academic source can sometimes give you really helpful help by suggesting new search terms, ways to limit your searches, or alternate names or phrases used about that person or topic.

    The Talk page:
    The talk page is used to discuss edits and changes to the article (beyond minor things like correcting a typo or adding widely known data). This is a fairly typical talk page. One section talks about someone who 'blanked' the article (removed all the content: not supposed to happen). Others talk about specific pieces of data - in this case, whether there was enough supporting evidence to be sure of Cassidy's legal name.

    Screenshot of Wikipedia Talk page for Butch Cassidy (as of 11/7/13)
    Table of Contents for the Wikipedia talk page for Butch Cassidy (as of 11/7/13)
    Looking at the Talk page can give you an idea of the following:
    • What contentious issues are for the topic.
    • If there have been lots of edits (which may indicate you need to be extra careful when reading).
    • If it is a target for vandalism (people making edits which are not true or appropriately cited).

    The History Page:
    One of the fascinating things about Wikipedia is that you can look at any version of the page, at any point since it started existing. Navigating this is a little complicated, but it can be really useful if you are tracking down a particular piece of information or are looking at a contentious topic.

    As you can see below, you can click on the date to see the page as of that date. You will also see brief notations about what was changed. (Helpful if you're tracking a particular change.)You can also compare two pages.

    Screenshot of the History page for the Butch Cassidy article (as of 11/4/13)
    Example of a Wikipedia history page, from the Butch Cassidy article (as of 11/4/13)

     

    Other notices:

    Wikipedia uses a variety of informational boxes to draw attention to other issues. One example comes from the entry for Etta Place, the Sundance Kid's girlfriend. As you can see below, the editors think this article needs more information, and that it has since early 2008. That's a good reason to pay extra attention to the sources mentioned, and to double check information in other places.
    Example of a "Needs additional citation"

    Things to do:

    1. Take a look at a topic you know a lot about on Wikipedia. What's the article like? Are there there good things in it? Are there wrong things in it?
    2. If you have easy access to a print encyclopedia (hint, we still have some at Mantor Library in our Reference Room) try looking up a topic both in the encyclopedia and Wikipedia. Is one article longer than the other? Does one give you more useful terms for future research than the other? Have better citations than the other? Try a couple of different kinds of topics. (The first time I did this, I looked up topics including Anne Boleyn, Christmas trees, a well-known author, etc.)
    3. Think about what ways you can use Wikipedia to learn more about the world in general, and how that might fit into your personal learning or broader understanding. (Not everything is about academic research papers, after all!) You may decide that you don't like sorting through Wikipedia for academic topics, but that it's great to have open when you're watching a TV series (and want background on the characters) or to follow an emerging news story.

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