Gathering some general information on your research topic by doing background reading is always a great way to begin the research process. Background reading involves reading works related to your topic, in order to get a bigger picture before diving into the deeper research. Similar to how you may consult Google Maps for a general idea of the streets and stores in a new city you plan to visit, background reading can help you feel more informed about where you are going with your research topic.
The Case for Wikipedia
Many people start their research these days with a preliminary Google search, which usually leads them to Wikipedia. Why? Wikipedia and reference sources in general (e.g., encyclopedias, atlases, handbooks) are excellent sources of background information. This is especially helpful if you are assigned or select a topic you are not yet very familiar with. Though Wikipedia is not considered a scholarly or academic source, it can be a great starting point for your research, allowing you to gather general information on your area of interest, and giving you ideas for narrow areas of focus. The “content” box on the left-hand side of Wikipedia pages can help you quickly scan for potentially relevant and interesting subtopics.
Wikipedia use is often discouraged by college professors because anybody can edit information on almost any Wikipedia page (though some pages that are more prone to vandalism have restrictions on who can and cannot edit them). Though the fear of inaccurate information being portrayed on Wikipedia is a legitimate concern, it is also true that Wikipedia is used by millions of people daily and errors are often corrected as soon as they are found. This is especially true on the pages that are used by many, like those for famous people, landmarks, or current events. While many professors will not accept Wikipedia as a source cited in the research assignment you ultimately turn in, it can be a useful tool in the early stages of research when you are seeking background information.
For more information on using Wikipedia to start out your research, and how professional fact-checkers use Wikipedia, refer to the page on Using Wikipedia Effectively.