Teaching faculty often tell their students not to use Wikipedia, arguing that it is non-scholarly and poorly-suited to academic research.

Placing an outright and arbitrary ban on using Wikipedia, or any other source, however, does a disservice to our students. First of all, although Wikipedia may not be the best source for students to use, it is certainly not the worst. A study published in Nature in 2005 revealed that Wikipedia was comparable in accuracy to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Although Wikipedia entries do not always provide citations, they almost always give a list of references, which is more than can be said about most other Web sites, and even most reputable newspapers.

Educators also frequently argue that because Wikipedia is a reference source, it should not be used as a source in its own right, and should never appear in Works’ Cited lists. This advice is more helpful than advocating an outright ban on using Wikipedia, and is even consistent with Wikipedia’s own advice to users, which indicates that “Wikipedia articles should be used for background information, as a reference for correct terminology and search terms, and as a starting point for further research.” Allowing students to use Wikipedia to gain a working knowledge, to identify areas of controversy, and identify more substantial and appropriate academic sources related to their subjects, fosters’ students’ ability to use information critically and independently, and helps them understand how tertiary sources fit into the research process.

Simply placing Web sites like Wikipedia off-limits, however, precludes students’ development of critical thinking skills, and tells students that they are incapable of judging the quality of Web sites on their own. Such teaching runs directly at odds with our stated goals of encouraging information literacy and lifelong learning. Education is an active, not a passive, process.