This page is meant as a demonstration of how to use Wikipedia to further your research. While Wikipedia has many features that can be useful, it is NOT an acceptable source in itself. It can be edited by anyone, which means the information is always suspect. The techniques described below are meant to assist in determining information and keywords to develop in scholarly research.
Determine your goals
As always, the first and most important step is to determine exactly what your goals are. There are many different types of writing. You may need to present an argument, a historical perspective, a compare/contrast, or something in one of many other forms. Read the instructions first. This example will take you through a historical perspective paper, but the techniques apply to many other styles. In the end, you are looking for broad knowledge that will help you focus on specific aspects of a topic.
Reading broadly on your topic is the first step. You have to understand many basic aspects in order to be able to focus in on one specific aspect. Wikipedia is generally a good place to get an overview. Other good tertiary sources, such as Encyclopedia Britannica, exist. First, open the article for your broad subject. In our example we are going to look at Catalonian Separatism. Catalan is a region in Spain that has been struggling for independence since the 1500s. There is a lot of history and it is a very big subject.
The Catalan page has a chronology. Events on this subject occurred as long ago as 968 and continue into modern times. Reviewing the chronology will help you determine just how deep you want to delve. You may want to look at the origins very closely, or simply mention them as part of a general background paragraph.
This example will start at 1469 with the union of Castile and Aragon. Isabella of Castile was the royal from Catalan and she kept her sovereign territory separate from the rest of Spain through the entire marriage to Ferdinand. After she died, there was a struggle to determine the inheritance. Many of the key issues began here, when the Catalan people believed they were independent of Spain after her death.
The body paragraph right next to the chronology mentions a revolt during the Franco-Spanish War, the War of Spanish Succession, and something called the Nueva Planta Decrees. Since dates are explicitly given as part of that overview paragraph, you can easily see how the ongoing issues fit into the chronology.
As you read through the entire article, you discover several other events of significance that show the territory has often sought their independence. These events are going to be the foundation of the historical portion of the paper. They are the keywords you need to be searching on. There are two main things you can get from Wikipedia and keywords is one of them.
Start building your outline and plan
One of the things you can do as you explore the overview information is determine what your main topics are going to be. You can already see that Wikipedia can often be helpful with that. Start organizing your outline early.
A good first step is to create one document in which you are going to keep all your notes. You want to put all notes in one document so that later when you are looking for something you don't have to open twenty things and search them all. Separate the parts with bibliographic information. Once you search the notes, just scroll up to find the source. Another trick is to put the page number at the start of each note.
It is a good idea to put your research question at the top of your document so you can keep it fresh and on your mind at all times. You do not want to get distracted by other interesting things you come across.
Add a general list of topics you have already encountered in your research. This list was developed based on the information from the two Wikipedia articles. There were seven items specifically related to the topic. The chronology and list even allow for a basic conclusion. The conclusion may change as the information develops, but this is already looking like a pretty thorough examination just based on the chronology. One nice feature of Wikipedia is that you can often line up your topics in chronological order and have your organization done for you.
Remember, this is a list of topics that need to be researched. There are no sources listed yet because you have to go to scholarly, peer-reviewed sources to get details on these topics.
Next, it is time to start looking for sources and to make notes on them. Since you have broken down your main topic into small bites, you can make a pretty accurate list of the things you are searching for. These keywords can be pulled from the Wikipedia page on the first read through and make an excellent start for the research. Notice the really early stuff was skipped. You can already start making determinations on what you will cover, what you will include as background, and what you will ignore, even at this early stage.
By creating it in the form of a chronology, you can start with the paper in order, which makes this fall into place easier later. You can see this list includes items important to the chronology, but some are such broad terms they will not make good keywords for searches. Some, on the other hand, are very specific to this topic and will make great keywords. Those are highlighted.
Notice two of them in particular: The Treaty of Pyrenees and the Nueva Plant Decrees. Passages from the these will probably make good primary sources. You can quote a legal document directly to make a point.
The term Statute of Autonomy is simply too generic to be productive in a search. Try it to discover hits from all regions of the world and all historical periods. Sorting through the irrelevant information is very time consuming. Other terms, such as Aragon and Castile, are specific to Spanish history, but will find hits on many unrelated topics, including the discovery of the New World. You can imagine there is a lot more information on the voyages of Christopher Columbus than a breakaway principality, even though both occurred at the same time. The Spanish Inquisition was also occurring at the time. Generic terms like Aragon and Castile are not impossible to use, but you will have to develop advanced search terms in order to keep them focused on your topic.
Now start the research, working your way through your list until you find something related to each of your sub-topics. As a general rule of thumb, do not include any word in your research question as a keyword for searching.
Look up unknown items
Hopefully you will bump into many things you did not know before. That is one of the objectives and you can’t just pass over them or make assumptions that you can understand a new term from context. You need to make sure that it is not important to understanding of the topic. In this case, the word FORALIST jumps out. Look it up to discover it is a type of Spanish law in which the sovereign grants the ability to live by custom and traditional law to a community, typically a large city or region. This sounds a lot like the autonomy the region is going to be granted later and is clearly a precursor type of government that gives people the mindset that they are already free to govern themselves. This deepens your understanding of the subject and provides an additional keyword.
Earlier you were told there are two really useful things you can get from Wikipedia. The first are the keywords. The second are the sources. Scroll down to the bottom of your article. Most Wikipedia articles come with footnotes.
Wikipedia can be edited by anyone so you don’t know if the information has been tampered with, but the footnotes provided usually link back to primary sources, journal articles, books, or news articles that you can go to directly to see what was actually said. Look at the references closely, especially those that are supporting the sections your work is focusing on. Much of your research may be included right at the bottom of the Wikipedia page. They often helpfully contain links, but even the ones that don’t should contain enough information for you to be able to find it (or ask a librarian to help you).
Articles that seem relevant to this Catalan Independence Movement are here: Beginnings of the autonomous regime, From Devolution to Secession, and Catalonia at a Crossroads: Analysis of Increasing Support for Secession.