Many students turn to Wikipedia for background information because it's easy to use, it's vast, and it has become so popular its articles often turn up within the first few links of a Web search. For some topics, particularly in the realm of popular culture, the articles can be uniquely valuable. However, there are two things to bear in mind.
First, because authorship is not limited to experts, but is open to anyone, there are times the articles are written by enthusiastic amateurs. Some articles are better than others.
Second, the quality varies considerably depending on who is interested in editing articles on a particular topic. Quite a number of scientists, lawyers, academics, and even college students have spent time improving articles on topics they understand well, but other subjects may have only skimpy articles. Apart from subjects, the Wikmedia Foundation that manages Wikipedia has expressed concern about the lack of diversity among editors, including a small percentage of editors who are women, which some feel results in uneven coverage of subjects of interest to or about women.
In general, Wikipedia is often a great place to get basic background information and often will provide links to useful sources. However, it is good for background only, not as a major source for a paper. Even its founder, Jimmy Wales, cautions students against using Wikipedia for research papers. He told a reporter, "If you are reading a novel that mentions the Battle of the Bulge, for instance, you could use Wikipedia to get a quick basic overview of the historical event to understand the context. But students writing a paper about the battle should hit the history books." In 2005, the prestigious science journal, Nature, caused a stir when it published an analysis that claimed science articles in Wikipedia contained an average of four mistakes, whereas the Encylopaedia Britannica contained three - something Britannica hotly denied. Nevertheless, for college research you should go beyond general encyclopedias, whether online or in print.
One of the most powerful ways to find valuable sources and assess their signifcance is to follow the breadcrumb trail left by scholars in their published work. When researchers cite sources, they are bolstering their argument by providing evidence, but also pointing readers to places they can go for more information. Take them up on it!
In addition to references in books and articles, the bibliographies found in specialized reference works such as the New Grove Dictionary of Music or the Encyclopedia of Psychology will point you to the most significant research on a topic, an efficient shortcut to the best stuff.
Once you see a reference that looks good, how do you get your hands on it? Here's a quick checklist.