Wikipedia's entry on itself will tell you all about it, but to quote, it's "a free, collaboratively edited and multilingual Internet encyclopedia ... [with] 22 million articles (over 3.9 million in English alone)." And to be thorough, they also have a dryly amusing entry for What Wikipedia is Not. (FYI, it's neither a dating service nor a crystal ball.)
As we all know by now, Wikipedia entries are written by anyone who steps up to the plate and types in the content. Over time, the community of writers and other interested parties have thrashed out guidelines as to how the whole thing operates. The current principles which underlie Wikipedia (subject to change by the collective will of the community) are known as the five pillars:
At the surface level, Wikipedia may seem to be about the content and the entries. But at its heart, Wikipedia is about the community of contributors who have created it, a truth that impacts the way we should use this tool for academic work. Academia is all about creating new work by building upon what others have already done, so really, Wikipedia behaves quite like an academic community with one critical exception: it's anonymous.
In scholarly discourse, "authority" is a fundamental. Academics must be able to identify who is responsible for a particular idea or article. Though individual faculty have their own opinions about the value of Wikipedia, the safe bet is that it's NOT acceptable as a reference for academic level work because its impossible to tell who is responsible for the information. (We can, however, learn to use the internal conversation of the Wikipedia contributers in our academic work, which we'll talk about in part C.)
Wikipedia has also established some policies related to the content of the articles. The core content policies are
From an academic standpoint, "verifiability" is an important criteria because the articles contain (in theory) information that can be found in a published, "authoritative" source. This is a good stepping stone toward acceptance in academia. In practice, the quality, authoritativeness, and reliability of the references used in the articles varies as much as the contributors do, but it is improving.
But for now, Wikipedia isn't well-regarded in academic circles, so what you can use it for is limited:
An aside: one of the reasons Wikipedia articles often appear near the top of Google searches is because of the zillion self-referencing links within Wikipedia to other Wikipedia articles, which Google then counts. This is SEO (Search Engine Optimization) in action, which we will cover in module 5.