Sometimes you just need answers from the Internet quick and with little hassle. For those times, you may have heard of a little website encyclopedia with nearly 35 million articles in 288 different languages called Wikipedia. Wikipedia can give fast, easy reference information to answer simple questions, such as those that come up in game shows, bets with friends, or just innocent day dreams.
Despite being a great tool for knowledge from the Internet, Wikipedia is a questionable resource for real information as it is a tertiary resource. Most academic institutions will not except a paper that references the website, as most of its information comes from users who may or may not be knowledgeable about the subject due to the fact that anyone can edit Wikipedia. That being said, it can be used to do some beginning research.
First off, a Wikipedia page contains some pretty basic elements. An introduction to the topic sits at the top of the page, followed by the outline of the page, and often to the right a sixe box giving basic information. For example, the entry on Terrebonne Parish includes an introduction with basic history and culture information, an outline of the page that includes links to the "History" and "Demographics" sections (among others), and the side box that contains images of Terrebonne Parish's location as well as population, congressional district, and websites. This quick information can often be sourced easily using other public sources such as Census.gov or a basic atlas.
Below this information is where you find the bulk of the article. This information is the untrustworthy part of a Wikipedia article, as some or all of it can be written as biased or incorrect. Quoting or citing any information should be avoided. There are two types of information in a Wikipedia article that can be trusted: the references and external links.
References in a Wikipedia page work just as they do on a research paper. They exist as footnotes (that often look like this: ) to tell the reader where the information they are using comes from. While reading a Wikipedia article, if you find a bit of information that you feel is important to your research, look for a footnote. The footnote should be a link that leads to the list of references at the bottom of the page. Those references are often legitimate sources and can be acceptable. Often they can be found online and include a link to the source. If they do not, you may have to track down the book, magazine, or journal article to find the information and correct citation.
External links in a Wikipedia page exist to point to other Internet resources that can be used for research. The Terrebonne Parish Wikipedia page contains many, including one to the government's web page in the side box and at the bottom of the article to the school district, sheriff's office, and the local newspapers. External links are often primary source documents, containing information directly from the subject of the article or the subject's representation.
In the end, Wikipedia is a tool like anything else. The effort you take when using it will be evident in your research, whether you simply look for quick answers at the top of the page or dig deeper. Use Wikipedia correctly and you will never lack for resources.