Answered By: Maryelizabeth Gano
Last Updated: Mar 08, 2017     Views: 7557

While you may feel more comfortable using a search engine like Google than you do in the library's databases (what's the difference?), there are some risks to using the open web for research.   Because anyone can "publish" on the internet (and not everyone is an expert), there is a lot of information out there that isn't reliable.  In fact, when you search Google, some of the first sites you see may be some of the least reliable.  

Wikipedia is tempting, because it seems to have an entry for everything.  Sometimes those entries look almost scholarly.  But, they are not.  Let's take a look at one example to understand why:

Say you’re doing research on Roman mythology. If you do a Google search, Wikipedia is one of the first results in your list.

Google search results

Sure, the Wikipedia entry on Roman Mythology will give you some general background information and it might give you some good ideas about how to narrow your topic.  As you read through the entry, for example, you see that Flora is the name of a specific Roman goddess. Thinking that you might like to write more about her in your paper, you click on her name to find out more. The Wikipedia entry on Flora is quite short on detail, however, which introduces us to some of the problems with Wikipedia.

  • Entries are very uneven; some are long and thorough while others are short and leave out a lot of important information.  That's because they're written by different people, with different levels of knowledge.
  • Others still contain information that is unsubstantiated (meaning, no evidence is provided to support specific claims) and some entries are simply inaccurate.  There is no editor to fact-check Wikipedia entries for accuracy, currency or bias.
  • Because anyone can contribute to Wikipedia, I, too, can click the “Edit this Page” tab and change the Flora entry to whatever I feel like. So if I decide that Flora is the goddess of not only flowers and the season of spring but also of minty fluoride toothpaste, I can make it so, regardless of whether or not it’s true (it really isn’t!).

Erroneous Wikipedia entry


While there is nothing wrong with turning to a Wikipedia entry to get some basic background information on a topic, you'll want to make sure that you:

  • Verify the any "facts" that you find on Wikipedia:  search for  authoritative website or a scholarly source from the library that can corroborate the information that you want to use.   
  • Cite the authoritative source that you found in your paper.  Do not cite Wikipedia!  Most APUS instructors will not allow it.

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