Wikipedia – the Digital Gateway to Academic Research

“Wikipedia is today the gateway through which millions of people now seek access to knowledge which not long ago was only available using tools constructed and maintained by professional scholars.” 

(William Cronon)


15 years ago today, a first step was made into democratizing access to information of an unimaginable breadth of topics by crowd sourcing an online encyclopaedia. Wikipedia, the largest and most comprehensive existing encyclopaedia, is still a highly contested resource in academia. It has re-shaped itself into the digital gateway of scholarly research, highlighting the importance of its bibliography over content. Admitting to the flaws that might exist in a crowd-sourced encyclopaedia and putting the emphasis on their hyperlinked references, Wikipedia has become an example of efficiently collecting and organizing content, while taking advantage of technology to link to and store information dynamically. The true value of Wikipedia for academia lies not in the content, but in the citations linking to the original source; it delivers value through providing a digital footprint of knowledge sources. Today, Wikipedia celebrates its birthday in style by inviting librarians around to world to participate in its vetting of academic sources, asking librarians around the world to add one reference #1Lib1Ref.

To this day, the role of Wikipedia in academia is polarizing. In “How today’s college students use Wikipedia for course related research,” Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg observe that one way to stir up a room filled with college faculty and librarians is to mention Wikipedia. Fact is, it has become commonplace – for young scholars as well as esteemed academics – to go to Wikipedia in the early stages of research and get a first understanding of a broad concept and then use the references section to find deeper content, following the practice of citation chaining (Ellis). A majority of college students report starting their research journey with Wikipedia (Head and Eisenberg). While this study only used self-reporting as their way of collecting data, RefME’s vast data shows that most users indeed use Wikipedia as a starting point for their research.

Some of the reported reasons behind why Wikipedia is considered valuable to students in the early stages of research are that it provides students with background information on a certain topic, it helps them get started with a new research topic, has an easy-to-use interface and can be used as a dictionary. It helps in the information seeking process by hypertext citations (backward chaining) and assists with search terms enabling to search for other sources (forward chaining) (cf. Head and Eisenberg).

Looking at the Most Cited Wikipedia Articles of 2015 in RefME’s data, within the top 40 cited articles there are a lot of searches for broad concepts, such as world wars, cultural and political movements, and a clear interest in influential figures and leaders in business, which certainly underlines the notion that it is used as a resource that helps grasping a concept or getting an overview when faced with a new topic.


wikepedia-most cited

Although we can identify a trend looking at our most cited articles of 2015, beyond those top articles, the number of citations to one topic decreases drastically – highlighting the breadth of knowledge Wikipedia encompasses and hinting at access to knowledge which had previously not existed. Cronon argues that unlike previously published encyclopaedia, the breadth of topics that are found on the platform is one factor that underlines its democratising function.


“Wikipedia provides an online home for people interested in histories long marginalized by the traditional academy” (Cronon).


The shift in authority over the discovery of academic content is manifest in Wikipedia. A call for librarians to participate in the vetting of this behemoth of information is not only smart, it is also a logical step towards a joint effort of validating knowledge – Wikipedia can ensure its content and citations are raised to a higher standard and become more relevant for academia, as well as librarians – the former custodians of knowledge – claiming a place in the new digital world of knowledge supply.



Cronon, William. “Scholarly Authority in a Wikified World.” American Historical Association. Feb. 2012. Web. 5 Jan. 2016. 

Ellis, David. “A Behavioural Approach To Information Retrieval System Design.” Journal of Documentation 45.3 (Mar. 1989): 171–212.

Head, Alison J., and Michael B. Eisenberg. “How today’s college students use Wikipedia for course-related research.” First Monday. 12 Mar. 2010. 10 Jan. 2016. 

Kostova, Julia, and Patrick H. Alexander. “The Knowledge Supply Chain in the Internet Age: Who Decides What Information is Trustworthy?” The Scholarly Kitchen. The Scholarly Kitchen, 16 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.

“The Wikipedia Library: #1Lib1Ref.” Wikimedia. 13 Jan. 2016. 14 Jan. 2016. 


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