In writing my historical fantasy series, I put a lot of attention to detail and accuracy. In my research, I use Wikipedia a lot.
These two statements may seem contradictory. Using wikipedia is something that’s often shunned by many who don’t know how useful and effective this tool really is, both for quasi-academic and everyday purposes.
Like every tool, Wikipedia can be used in a wrong way. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be using it at all! Here is how I use it whenever I want to make sure what I’m writing about is accurate.
1. Sources. This is what the whole idea of wikipedia is about – you can’t write anything without backing it up with a citation. If there is no citation, chances are, it’s inaccurate or made-up.
2. Google is your friend. Sometimes something is written in wikipedia in good faith, but the editor simply forgot or couldn’t find an accurate enough source. This doesn’t mean the information is necessarily false; a little googling (news archives, academic papers, etc.) is always an obligatory step for verifying the veracity of information.
3. Not all sources are equal. This is a common problem on wikipedia: citation leads to an unreliable source. Just because something is reported outside wikipedia, doesn’t yet make it real. The source could be a biased blogger, a fraud research, or a misinformed news reporter. Again, googling is always helpful. Just make sure you’re not going round and round between one copy of the same reference and another!
4. Pro tools: Talk, Controversy and Other Languages. These are secret tools in every wikipedia-user’s arsenal. The Controversy section in an article does not always mean the information is invalid – but often points to where the conflicting data can be found. Always check what other editors have to say on the matter on Talk, especially if something looks particularly dodgy; if, however, the Talk section looks like a window into an insane asylum, feel free to ignore it completely. Subjects on wikipedia are almost never as controversial as the editors think. For example, the debate about the use of “the” in “The Beatles” has been raging for years, with multiple casualties. It’s safe to say you can write “the Beatles” or “The Beatles” any which way you like.
And lastly, if possible, check wikipedia entries in other relevant languages. Even using Google Translate, you can often spot discrepancies between one version or another – or simply additional data that helps verify what you already know.
5. Common sense and other sanity checks. Sometimes the information in a wikipedia article is so outlandish and far-fetched, it shows immediately on your bullshit radar. Even if everything else points to it being true, if your common sense tells you it’s not, better leave it out. Your readers will not bother with checking the facts, and might call you a fraud simply because it seems you made something up.
Also, always check popular “myth-busting” websites, like Snopes.com, before committing something to e-paper.
Remember – these are just tips for writers and hobbyists, not for scientists! Real scientists should use proper academic tools instead 🙂