Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How do you use Wikipedia?

With the new northern school year underway, we can expect that the shorter days and colored leaved will bring with them a bevy of complaints by academic bloggers about the evils of Wikipedia and how venal students are for using it as a reference.

This does not strike me as constructive criticism. After all, Wikipedia is certainly no worse than any other encyclopedia, and it is an incredibly useful resource. So instead of whinging about it, I’m going to explain what I use it for, and when I don’t think it is much good. I challenge all the wikiwhinging professors out there to come clean and do the same.

I have two main uses for wikipedia: Looking up ‘common knowledge’, and giving myself a background on things I know nothing about.

An example of the first is the mass of Jupiter. This is a very well known constant- it is the main unit of mass for exoplanetary studies, for example. But I don’t know off the top of my head how many kg (or earth masses, which I do know) Jupiter is. Wikipedia is the easiest way to get this number, and the chances of it being wrong are quite small.

As far as the general knowledge about stuff I don’t understand, my approach is generally to read the article, then dig into the links at the end if I need to be sure of any particular facts, or need more depth. The last thing I looked up was the history of Guangzhou, and I didn’t follow it up because the interest was casual.

I would use Wikipedia for math and physics equations, except that I find it to be terribly obtuse and difficult to find simple equations or succinct descriptions.

I use the sites linked in the “useful links” part of the sidebar for technical information.

If I need to understand something in Wikipedia at a research level, I generally come up with some keywords based on the article and plug them into google scholar.

I find that Google scholar is better for keywords and titles, while georef is better for author or journal searches.

So, wikiwhingers, come clean. What do you use the masses encyclopedia for? (feel free to blog at length on your home site on this subject)


Anonymous said...

It's my first and usually only source for standard maths/science equations and the dimensions of quantities. And unit conversions.

I've not found myself misled yet.

Anonymous said...

I fully agree with your position. For technical information about the sciences, I've rarely seen something that was wrong. I also use wikipedia for brainstorming.

William M. Connolley said...

As far as the general knowledge about stuff I don’t understand, my approach is generally to read the article, then dig into the links at the end if I need to be sure of any particular facts, or need more depth.

Top tip from the pros is also to look at the edit history. If its full of reversions and edit wars, beware. A quick check on the talk page can also help. That, of course, doesn't help for inadvertent errors.

Anonymous said...

I need your help, please. I've been trying to submit my 'experience' to the Accretionary Wedge 27, but every time I try to post it or get it to Lockwood it mysteriously disappears after I see it on the screen under comments. If it is not suitable I'm fine with that but I just want to know why it is NOT ACCEPTABLE. Could you please review it and give me your opinion as to why it isn't being included. And if you find it acceptable to forward it to him. I respect the hosts job of editing what they want too and they can leave what they want in or out. I can accept that but I do feel like a response back is in order as to when there are multiple inquiries as to whether they got it or not. I haven't even gotten that much. Please go to 'Ann's Musings on Geology and Other Things'. . I can be contacted at
Ann O'Brien Willis

Cian said...

I guess I'm a WikiP naysayer. I use it to search pop culture references or "famous persons." I don't usually use it for science at all. On the infrequent occasions when I do use it for science, it's typically to see the word choices (for example, what words and language people associate with "aquifer") or to see how a term is being defined in a popular reference so that I know what someone might find when they googled it before asking me a question.

I wouldn't accept it for a geology definition. Students and professionals have access to basic industry glossaries, dictionaries, and texts that are more appropriate sources.

This makes me wonder if, instead of picking on it, I should contribute to it.