Students, have you ever been told?

Don’t use Wikipedia when researching a paper!

I wager that this is something that almost every student was told at one time or another, usually in high school but probably even before that. This reminds me of a similar prohibition I received when I was a schoolboy.

Don’t use “I” when writing a paper!

My theory as to why teachers say such things is because most students, especially young ones, will write things like….

I think that George Washington was a complex leader.


I like the way the story is told in Citizen Kane.

I agree. These two passages sound like they were written by a third grader and are hardly acceptable for more advanced grade levels. Teachers probably encounter this hundreds of times before they finally become so frustrated that they opt for a nuclear option. Teachers simply tell students that they cannot use “I” when writing a paper.

While this does help the problem of students writing like a “third grader,” it unfortunately eliminates the authoritative voice that some argumentative essays require. The first-person singular voice can be used to explain your method. For example:

In this paper, I will argue that it is acceptable to use the first-person singular subject in academic writing in key places.

As you can see, I used the dreaded “I” in the above passage, but I think this sounds more sophisticated than the “third-grade” examples because I have essentially explained that I am making an argument. The first-person voice also signals to the reader that I, as a human being, is making a point and that the reader may want to pay attention to this passage since it is different from the other.

The prohibition against Wikipedia as a source comes from a similar frustration. Students will do a simple web search, stumble on a Wikipedia entry, and base their research entirely on the Wikipedia article. A teacher who encounters this academic crime may just ban students from using Wikipedia.

But the problem isn’t with Wikipedia. The problem is doing research with a single source.

Single-source is hardly a new problem. It used to happen with encyclopedias, too, and we weren’t allowed to exclusively rely on those either. Even if we did occasionally copy the content from certain articles.

But what teachers don’t communicate is that Wikipedia can be useful tool for research, but only if its not used on its own.