If you’re like most people, when you hear the word wiki, you automatically think of Wikipedia. Almost anyone who uses the Internet has used Wikipedia from time to time to learn more about any of the millions of topics it covers in its four million pages. Indeed, it might seem harder not to use Wikipedia than to use it since its pages tend to come up first, or at least in the top five, of most Google searches, and most surveys of the world’s most popular websites put Wikipedia in the top ten. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what the internet would be like today without wikis!

This article is about how you—and your fellow students—can use wikis to help write essays and conduct academic research. To make things easier, we’ve divided it into two sections. First, we’ll talk about how to use wikis to conduct research. Then we’ll talk briefly about using wikis to actually help you write your project.

Wikis as a Research Tool

As a student, though, you’ve probably been discouraged from using Wikipedia by well-meaning teachers. They might have forbidden you from citing or even looking at Wikipedia articles. Most of their objections are based on the myth that “just anybody” can put or change articles on a wiki. What if that article you’re citing about oil spills was authored by a BP employee? What if that article on ghost hunting was put up there by a “believer” who refused to consider any evidence that didn’t confirm her views on the paranormal?

While these suspicions are false—Wikipedia is often more accurate than commercial encyclopedias—these teachers are right about one thing: if you’re writing an academic paper, you need to cite academic sources, and Wikipedia—just like any other encyclopedia—is not an academic source. That’s not their fault; they were never intended to be used by students writing research papers. Instead, they’re designed for everyday people who just want a concise, simplified summary of a topic or issue. The author of an encyclopedia article might go to great lengths to make sure the facts presented there are accurate, but the information is still heavily filtered and diluted by the time it gets to print or screen. That’s because the author has to take in whatever has been written by professional researchers, then interpret it for people who have little to no understanding of the subject at hand.

Imagine trying to describe a new phone app to your tech-savvy friends versus a family member who has never owned a mobile phone. That’s the level of ignorance that every encyclopedia (or Wikipedia) contributor has to deal with. Needless to say, a lot of information is going to be simplified or just left out entirely.

Academic sources, on the other hand, aren’t filtered or diluted at all. They don’t need to be, because the people who read them are experts in the subject matter. Because they are experts, they are better able to pick out where authors make mistakes. They can also tell (usually) when an author is intentionally being dishonest.

This line between academic and non-academic sources is where Wikipedia shines compared to its print-based cousins. Unlike them, Wikipedia pages are heavily referenced, meaning that the authors are routinely asked to provide credible documentation to back up their information. If you look closely at a page such as the “Deepwater Horizon oil spill” page, you’ll notice lots of numbers in brackets at the end of some sentences—nearly five hundred different sources! Click on one, and you’ll jump straight to the citation, which in most cases is a credible source such as an academic article, book, reputable website, government report, or newspaper item. Even though your teacher might not accept Wikipedia articles as a source, he or she is probably fine with a scientific report from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management or the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. If these sources aren’t available online, you’ll need to go to your library’s homepage to figure out how to access them. You can do that by searching your library’s database, but if it gets confusing, just ask a reference librarian to help you.

Wikis like the Wikipedia can help you do research, but remember—they’re just there to give you a shallow understanding of a topic. When you’re ready to go deeper, click on the sources and find the actual academic research you need for your project.

Wikis as a Writing Tool

Using wikis to actually help you write a paper is very different than just using them for research. The big problem is other people. When you write an old-fashioned essay, you get to make all the decisions regarding what you say, how you say it, what order you put it in, and how many times you proofread it before handing it in. A wiki, on the other hand, turns all of these decisions into discussions. If you anger the other people working on the wiki, they might simply roll back your changes or even banish you! In any event, a poorly functioning group with lots of anger and resentment is very unlikely to produce a good wiki, assuming they produce anything at all.

Instead of viewing wikis as a writing tool, then, you should view them as a writing community. Understand that the other people involved are probably just as proud and convinced of the rightness of their choices as you are. Wiki writers have to be willing to see their own work routinely modified or even deleted by other people. That’s a big blow to a lot of students’ egos, especially those with good grades in their writing courses and who are proud of their ability. There’s always the temptation to get angry or depressed about it, lose your focus, and end up with a bad grade.

If you’re starting a new wiki project, then, the most important thing you can do is make sure that everyone onboard is clear about the goals you’ve set and the method for getting there. Plan ahead for disagreements and treat everyone with respect, especially when you feel they don’t deserve it. For your part, if you’ve argued your case and the majority still disagrees with you, don’t be stubborn or resentful. Just quietly accept it and move on, and don’t let it stop you from trying to make the rest of the project as good as it can be. If you show that you can handle disagreement in a professional and mature fashion, you’ll gain a level of trust and respect that’s a lot more valuable in the long run than the short-lived satisfaction you get from lashing out.

On a positive note, wikis are very simple to use, and the software is often free. Wikispaces, Wikidot, and Wetpaint are great choices for anyone new to wikis. Check out their various features and see which one will work best for your project. It’s also a good idea to look for existing wikis that are similar to what you have in mind; you’ll learn a lot by example. Even if you can’t find a wiki on your particular subject, such as the prevention of oil spills, you might find one on the prevention of forest fires. Whatever worked (and didn’t work) for the forest fire page will likely apply to yours as well, so study it carefully.

There’s a lot to know about wikis, and a good place to learn more is Wikipedia itself. Next time you’re doing research, take some time to notice the numbers in brackets and examine the sources the contributors have used to support their points. If you’re creating or contributing to a wiki project, don’t treat it like a traditional essay. Now, you’re working with other people. Be clear about the goals of the project, any rules and guidelines, and always be willing to compromise.