Is It Okay to Use Wikipedia & Google in Academic Writing?

Should students use Wikipedia and Google in their researched writing? Though it’s not uncommon for instructors to ban the use of internet sources in academic work, Randall McClure (2011) writes in “Googlepedia: Turning Information Behaviors into Research Skills” that today’s students can – and do – use Google and Wikipedia as a starting point for research. McClure’s piece appears in Writing Spaces: Reading on Writing, a peer-reviewed open textbook series for writing classes, and it is written for an audience of college students. As such, composition instructors may consider assigning this article as reading to spark discussion among first-year composition (FYC) students about their source use.

In “Googlepedia,” McClure first explains that the way that writers conduct research and handle information has changed, with most students searching the Web using search engines like Google to find information. To show how some students use the web to find, evaluate, and use information, McClure offers the cases of two students, Susan and Edward, who use Google and Wikipedia, respectively, to conduct research in FYC. Throughout his description of Susan and Edward’s literacy practices, McClure argues for the importance of information literacy. He then describes the writing processes of Susan and Edward, offering his analysis and – at times – critique of their process, as well as his recommendations to students for how to improve their information literacy.

What I found most useful about McClure’s piece is his 8 step process for developing research skills. In sum, these are the steps:

  1. Start with Wikipedia to understand the topic and identify search terms.
  2. Use Google to broaden your sense of the topic and try out some preliminary search terms.
  3. Now use Google with quote marks around your search terms to reduce the number of results.
  4. Use Google Scholar and try the search terms here.
  5. Limit your search in Google Scholar by narrowing the search to the past 10 years.
  6. Now, use your college’s library database and try your search terms there.
  7. Search in at least one general academic database available through your library.
  8. Limit your search by year and full text to reduce your returns.

McClure then reports that Edward and Susan “completed this sequence in less than thirty minutes” (p. 238), a convincing detail for students who may be reluctant to try the 8 step process.

I appreciate McClure’s step-by-step process which combines students’ information literacy practices with academics’ information literacy practices, and I think it’s especially useful to share with students that Wikipedia and Google can be great starts to the research process. McClure argues that library databases can make the searching process more efficient and, therefore, can save students time. I agree and find this to be a persuasive argument, especially for an audience of students. In my experience as both a student and an instructor, Wikipedia and Google can provide exactly the kind of background knowledge that McClure points to.

Although McClure’s piece is a great choice for instructors to assign to students, I wonder if a conversation with students should follow about the kind of knowledge generating practices valued in academia. In other words, McClure’s 8-step process is a great way to teach the research process to students, but we also need to emphasize the why. Academic sources aren’t only better because they may be more accurate and the author may have greater authority. (Right?). Academic sources are preferable because academic work tends to generate meaningful, tested knowledge. 

Thus, we might also engage students in these questions: How is knowledge generated? How do we decide which claims are valid and which ones are not valid? If we teach research as a process of going out and finding sources, then do we suggest to students that so long as a claim can be supported, the claim is valid? How can we push students away from writing papers that fall into the trap of confirmation bias and instead encourage students toward the kind of inquiry and critical thinking valued in academia?

And is “academic thinking” intrinsically valuable, or is academic thinking no more valid than any other kind of thinking? These are the bigger questions that I’ll need to grapple with as I decide how to teach students about research.


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