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Wikipedia: Wikipedia as a research tool

A quick introduction to Wikipedia and its use as a research tool


Wikipedia is tertiary information source: an online reference encyclopedia that collates, organises and repackages primary and secondary sources. 

Information sources are typically categorised into three broad source categories, based on their proximity to original source material.


1. Primary Sources

First hand accounts or records of activity as they happened or were created, without any subsequent interpretation or commentary.

Examples include:  original artwork and literary works, dissertations, research findings, speeches, correspondence, diaries, interviews, first hand news accounts, etc.

A wealth of primary sources are available to you at the University.  Use the archives section of the A-Z Database List to access the various resources. The Primary Sources LibGuide provides guidance on finding primary sources.


2. Secondary Sources

Interpretation, commentary or analyses of other sources. These are typically written after the event or activity being discussed,and are not based on direct observation of involvement.

Examples include: textbooks , books and journal articles that do not present new research, dissertations, commentaries and criticisms, textbooks, newspaper articles that are opinions/reviews/analyses rather than first hand reporting on events.

Use the Library research tools to help you to search and discover relevant secondary sources. 


3. Tertiary Sources

Organisation, categorisation, index or collection of primary and secondary sources. These sources typically list or collate other sources, rather than adding additional commentary or observations.

Examples include:  dictionaries & encyclopedias, bibliographies fact books, digests, directories, guidebooks, indexing and abstracting sources.

Many of these resources are now available in online format - find out more on the Online Reference Resources LibGuide.


There is some fluidity across these categories as for example news sources and journal articles can be primary or secondary sources, and/or offer both primary and secondary material within the same article.

Reference sources are great starting points for research topics.  They can help you gather background information to equip you with a 'working knowledge' of a topic so that you can explore it in further depth. 

For example, encyclopedia can help you identify key writers and commentators, common themes and controversies and potential search terms for you to use in more in depth literature searching. 

You should always expand your research beyond these starting points resources and examine primary and secondary resources when you are producing scholarly/academic work.

Take a look at what Wikipedia itself has to say about its use as a research tool - in a nutshell it also encourages you to use it as a starting point only, recommends further research seeking activity and flags some of the weaknesses inherent in an open collaborative reference tool.

Factors such as reliability, accuracy, depth and neutrality vary between different articles as Wikipedia is an open, collaborative environment to which anyone can contribute. 

A team of editors work to keep articles accurate and up to date, but malicious or unintentionally false inforamtion is added and can take some time toi be spotted, reported and removed.

Checkout what Wikipedia itself has to say on the subject of its reliability

You should always view articles with a critical, evaluative eye. 

  • Investigate if facts stated in wikipedia articles are backed up in other sources, instead of accepting things at face value.   
  • Follow the citation trail through the references at the end of wikipedia articles to find more authoratative sources which confirm or conflict the wikipedia data
  • Use standard information skills to evaluate all the sources you encounter in your research. The My Library Essentials materials from the University of Manchester will provide support for these activities.

My Learning Essentials Resources - University of Manchester Library‚Äč

My Learning Essentials resources are developed by The University of Manchester Library, and are licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0. My Learning Essentials © The University of Manchester.

A range of other online reference resources are available you you at the University. 

Check out all the information on the Online Reference Resources LibGuide

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