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BIO 245: Conservation Biology: Websites and Reference Books

Imagery

Swan Lake Minnesota wetlands complex

Swan Lake, Nicollet County, MN wetlands complex from the Minnesota River Basin Data Center

On the Web

In the Reference Section

Textbooks digest and organize scientific findings into a systematic overview of knowledge. You can find similar coverage of issue in the library's reference section (on the main floor, by the windows on the Beck Hall side of the library). One useful feature of these kinds of sources is that they may list important primary science articles in their references - so you can identify the most influential classic books and articles.

What About Wikipedia?

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.

If you'd like to know more about Wikipedia, check out this article in The Atlantic. Or for a politically-barbed, satirical take, see how it was covered by The Colbert Report.

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