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Wikipedia and undergraduate research trajectories

Lily Todorinova (Undergraduate Experience Librarian, Research and Instructional Services, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA)

New Library World

ISSN: 0307-4803

Article publication date: 9 March 2015




The purpose of this paper was to analyze undergraduate students’ use of Wikipedia bibliographies. The study has implications for Wikipedia as a “discovery tool” of library collections, library instructional practices and understanding the complex ecology of students’ research processes.


Thirty undergraduate students were recruited from introductory English writing classes. A controlled survey was conducted in Qualtrics®, including the following sections: pre and post test of students’ understanding of authority/quality of sources; tasks analyzing participants’ choices for further research after reading a Wikipedia article; and students’ determination of the authority/quality of sources in Wikipedia reference pages, using an adapted version of the Turnitin® Source Educational Evaluation Rubric.


The investigator found that students were unlikely to follow references they found in bibliographies of Wikipedia pages, unless instructed to do so. This was expressed most clearly in their comments, which revealed that Wikipedia’s reference sections are found to be too overwhelming and numerous. These entries are depicted by order of appearance in the text and are not ranked, or presented in an order students considered useful. Participants were not likely to use Wikipedia as a discovery tool of library content because they perceived Wikipedia as being markedly different, even in opposition to, library resources. Students disclosed being warned by their faculty and instructors not to use the online encyclopedia at all in their research process. However, paradoxically, after reading a Wikipedia article, students were most likely to go to Google, or revisit Wikipedia, for more information, as opposed to using the library. Study participants reported that “ease of access” is the most important consideration when choosing sources to include in research papers, followed by the actual authority/quality of these sources. Students also greatly benefited from having a structured rubric available at the point of their research process when they are asked to determine the authority/quality of sources, and especially within Wikipedia bibliographies.

Research limitations/implications

This is a small-scale study of students’ use of Wikipedia in one university campus, but its results can spark a discussion of the larger question of undergraduates’ research trajectories. The findings of the study suggest that these trajectories are extremely influenced by two conflicting issues: faculty influence and resource convenience. The researchers plan to extend the study to include faculty’s perceptions of the value of Wikipedia to undergraduate students’ research, including faculty’s own involvement as Wikipedia editors and contributors. Future research of undergraduate’s use of Wikipedia could benefit from a greater recruitment of participants across a diverse pool of academic institutions, as well as a mixed research method of observation, task analysis and interviews.

Practical implications

The findings of the study offer suggestions for both the design aspect of Wikipedia and the instructional methods of academic librarians. This study also informs library practices and emerging collaborations with Wikipedia, specifically the “Wikipedian in Residence” program and the concept of using Wikipedia as one type of a discovery tool.


There is a lack of empirical evidence showing how or if students use Wikipedia bibliographies to continue their research. The possibility of the online encyclopedia as a discovery tool for library collections is relatively unknown and unexplored. The topic of collaboration between Wikipedia and libraries is new and emerging in the field.



The author gratefully acknowledges the collaboration of Yu-Hung Lin, Head of Continuing Resources, Scholarship, and Research Data in designing the survey used to gather data for this publication. The author is also very thankful and appreciative of the support of Grace Agnew, Associate University Librarian for Digital Library Systems at Rutgers University Libraries.


Todorinova, L. (2015), "Wikipedia and undergraduate research trajectories", New Library World, Vol. 116 No. 3/4, pp. 201-212.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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