Say you’re given a writing assignment (in high school, college, or whatever). Suppose the topic you have to write on is new to you, and you need to get a quick handle on it. The natural place to look, of course, is the Internet; and the natural place on the Internet to look, of course, is Wikipedia.

Now the problem is this: many teachers and professors look down their nose at Wikipedia. Some will mark you off for using Wikipedia. Others will give explicit instructions that you may not use Wikipedia at all, perhaps even giving you a zero if you use it.

Should they be doing this? Is Wikipedia really that bad as encyclopedias go? The gold standard of encyclopedias is the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which sought the recognized expert in each field for its articles. Contributors to that encyclopedia included such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Ernest Rutherford, and Bertrand Russell. By the way, this encyclopedia, now a hundred years old, is available here.

Gone are the days of universal encyclopedias that purport to cover the whole of human knowledge and that get the very best people to contribute on the topics in their expertise. Encyclopedia Britannica, World Book, etc. are all nowadays staffed by professional writers and editors who are “quick studies,” writing on topics not where they have expertise but where they have to learn enough in a short time to say something worthwhile.

In this regard, Wikipedia can actually be better than the standard encyclopedias. Not only does Wikipedia cover a lot more ground than the standard encyclopeidas (i.e., it has millions rather than merely thousands of articles), but the people who contribute often have both expertise and passion for their subject.

That said, there is also a downside to Wikipedia. For one thing, fact checking there can be minimal, so if you use Wikipedia, it’s good to get independent confirmation. Some misstatements of supposed fact at Wikipedia are quite egregious. Also, if a given topic is controversial, a biased editor can ensure that the bias continues and that the “other side” never gets a fair hearing (one way to see this is to look at the record of changes to a Wikipedia article and see if an editor keeps reverting back to “the party line”).

One thing that would help balance Wikipedia tremendously is if individuals about which Wikipedia provides bios, especially those involved in controversy, could have a section in their bio where they could respond to it. This is not to say that their responses would be unbiased, but it would give the other side. It now happens that misinformation gets into Wikipedia bios and the people that the bios are about simply are unable to correct them. Ruthless editors have gotten themselves in positions of authority at Wikipedia and have undermined a small, though significant, set of articles at Wikipedia.

So to return to our original problem: you’re given a writing assignment and you want to turn to Wikipedia for help. By all means go there. But don’t just stay there. Many Wikipedia articles have references that provide independent confirmation of what’s claimed there as well as additional information. Follow these references. And when you actually write your article, use these references and don’t reference Wikipedia.

Teachers and professors tend, when grading papers, to react negatively to references that cite encyclopedia articles. Why? When it comes to references, the gold standard is the original source. Suppose you’re writing about Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The best sources for such a paper would be Einstein’s original work or current physics textbooks or journal articles. In other words, these sources would be straight-up science texts by scientists.

Next best would be what are called “secondary sources.” These are works by people who haven’t done the original research or work, have read about it in the originals, and are now offering their commentary on it. In the general relativity example, these would be works by popular science writers (often journalists) who are writing on the topic.

In this regard, encyclopedia articles might be called “tertiary sources.” They tend to be still further removed from the topic in question than the secondary sources. They tend to be short, cannot examine a topic in depth, and thus distill the distillation of the topic. That’s why teachers and professors tend to look down on encyclopedia articles when cited in student papers. And because Wikipedia has quality control issues, they tend to look even more down on Wikipedia, especially because it is so readily available and suggests that students spent hardly any time on the writing assignment.

Bottom line: By all means, use Wikipedia to get yourself oriented to a topic. Some of the articles actually are quite good. One advantage to Wikipedia is that people don’t get paid for their contributions, so many of the articles are labors of love, with writers trying to do their very best on them. But remember that fact checking is a problem at Wikipedia. Also, on controversial topics, biased editors can entrench themselves and keep alternative points of view from coming to light. And finally, don’t cite Wikipedia directly but check out the sources that Wikipedia cites and cite them.