Wikipedia started in 2001, based on the concept of the encyclopaedia. It was to be free, web-based and never intended to be physical. The concept has grown to be one of the most important sources of information in the world. It’s a charitably-run site, a collaborative piece of work (no single author) and is available in multiple languages. But how does it work?

Wikipedia contains pages on people, concepts, events, etc., each one being referenced with openly available, published sources, which can be peer reviewed. It’s an aggregator of published resources. Every “wiki” page has a history (i.e. every historical state of editing) so that readers can view how it has changed over time, by viewing the previous versions. Content on Wikipedia uses the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (CC BY-SA 3.0) license, so anyone can use it. As ever, do read around the T&Cs to satisfy your curiosity on this.

Mission statement

Photo of Jimmy Wales.
Jimmy Wales in 2006. Credit: Gus Freedman (CC BY-SA 2.5), via Wikimedia Commons

“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we are doing.”

Jimmy Wales (Founding member of Wikipedia)

Wikipedia has five pillars which it strives to uphold:

  • It is an encyclopaedia;
  • It has a neutral point of view;
  • It is free content that anyone can edit / contribute to;
  • Wikipedians (editors of Wikipedia) should interact in a respectful and civil manner;
  • Wikipedia does not have firm rules besides the five pillars outlined (although it does have democratically-set guidelines).

Here’s a fun fact: it is possible to download the whole of Wikipedia to have an offline version, for research, or for use in locations with slow/no/expensive internet. For instance, Kiwix is a packaged offline version used in remote or poorly connected locations around the world.

Using Wikipedia

Anyone can use Wikipedia. If you want to know anything about practically anything, if it’s worth writing about, it will be on Wikipedia. For instance, take a moment and search for your home town/borough/village on Google, and add ‘wiki’ to the search criteria. Do you see a Wikipedia page on your home area?

This search may or may not be impressive, as you may get lots of information, or not very much. It depends on the size and significance of the place, and on who has contributed to the information on the page.

Have another go. Look up your favourite celebrity, author, singer or actor and add ‘wiki’ to the search. Did you get more information?

The next question is, can you add to that information? Do you want to? If yes, read on. If no, enjoy searching and using Wikipedia as a source of information. As a student, Wikipedia is a great source of information and although it may not be right to cite Wikipedia articles in essays and assignments, do consider checking out the sources of information cited underneath the text for further reading around a subject.

Can I edit Wikipedia?


To create a Wikipedia user account, one needs to create a username and password (these are mandatory); an email address is optional and beneficial if you forget your username and/or password.

Anonymous editing can be done without a user account; changes are logged by IP address. However for learning purposes, and if you want to include it in a portfolio, a user account is advised for credibility. It also has some benefits, in allowing you to find your edits again in future, get updates when other editors collaborate on the same articles, and to contribute to certain articles which are blocked to anonymous editing.

Wikipedia doesn’t gather personal details. However, when Wikipedia does want a snapshot of demographics, they survey users on a voluntary basis.

When contributing to Wikipedia, there are style guides relating to how Wikipedia articles should look and feel. These are very useful to maintain consistency and a high standard of information. Style guides can be reviewed, discussed and debated in the community, and styles can ultimately be changed. It’s a democratic process.

Tips for editing Wikipedia

  • Try out the Wikipedia Tutorial pages.
  • When writing or adding to articles, maintain a neutral point of view, don’t include personal opinion, bias or speculation.
  • Use reliable sources, and correctly cite them on the Wiki pages to allow verification. Not all sources are reputable; look for redactions, and check several sources for validity, truth and transparency.
  • Wikipedia articles use secondary sources of information, not original research. Secondary sources need to be legitimate, and it’s advisable to cross-reference information from different sources to reduce misinformation. Similarly, don’t cite other Wikipedia articles!
  • It’s important to assume good faith and be civil to fellow Wikipedians. There are multiple authors per article.
  • It’s best to avoid conflict of interest, and not edit pages about, for example, your boss, business interests and/or family members.
  • What you choose to edit may be closely scrutinised by fellow Wikipedians in an attempt to avoid vandalism of information.
  • Build upon your credibility as you build your editing abilities. Anonymous editing won’t give access for editing all pages, it’s a limitation.

You cannot break Wikipedia. The more you edit, the more you learn.

What about images?

There’s a shortage of images on Wikipedia. If you can provide images for Wikimedia Commons, it would be helpful to the Wiki Community. Wikimedia (the global movement which grew from the Wikipedia project) runs a number of photography competitions per year, such as:

Typically these photo competitions are regional but feed through in to National/International competitions. Read around the T&Cs and keep an eye out for them.

Not all images are eligible to be on Wikimedia Commons (it requires content to be licensed for commercial use), however non-free content may be eligible for uploading to Wikipedia’s internal media catalogue.

In summary

Wikipedia is a great source of information which has been cited from reputable secondary sources. It aims to be the sum of all human knowledge, and is constantly added to. It’s organic and growing. Do consider using Wikipedia as a resource, you might just learn something.

Header image licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, adapted from:
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay (free use), and
Image by Apple Inc. from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)


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