Monday, February 25, 2013

Wikipedia and Reference Universe: A powerful combination

A study of research habits among college students resulted in a research report accompanied by a YouTube video. Under the heading "Everyday Research," the video had a slide titled "Wikipedia: The Power of an Uncitable Source."

It seemed to me this phrase accurately captured how we ought to think about this controversial research tool. It is indeed powerful but not useful for every purpose. For example, Wikipedia isn't considered a scholarly research-appropriate source.

Academics rightly caution their students not to cite Wikipedia as a source in their research papers and - by the way - so do the creators of Wikipedia.

Ending the conversation there, though, is disingenuous. There are many purposes for which Wikipedia is perfectly suited. (I strongly suspect that even those academics who curse it use it themselves at times.)

So what's it good for? It is good for getting an overview of a subject, seeing what issues surround a subject, getting a grasp of significant terms associated with the subject, and finding references to "citable" sources (citable because they are created by single authors who are accountable for their work).

Rather than steering student researchers away from Wikipedia with a blunt instruction to avoid it all costs, I'd say let them use it for what it's good for -- to inform, to help focus a topic and to open up other research paths.

However, if the subject is one that a classical encyclopedia addresses well, then use those. The Richland Library owns the Encyclopedia Britannica Online and a large selection of print encyclopedias.

To get a good perspective on the depth and breadth of print and online subject encyclopedias, try using a librarian's secret weapon: Reference Universe.

Reference Universe is a little-known online master index to index terms and article titles contained in both electronic and print reference works. More than 20,000 reference works are now represented in the database, and many of these are owned within the district libraries or our library. 

Reference Universe can help you and your students find the best article topic in our own library and library website instead of the often taboo Wikipedia. 

To get to Reference Universe, visit, click on "R," and scroll down to find the database link. Questions on how to use it? Let us know at

Students, instructors, faculty, and staff with a current DCCCD I.D. will be able to log on from remote locations.

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