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Extended Essay: Do Background Reading

A guide to the research and writing process required for students completing the IB Extended Essay.

Finding background information

Arizona highway sign - Britannica ImageQuestWhen you're just beginning your research it can help to find some background information on your topic.  See the box to the right for questions you must consider at this stage. On other pages in this section you can learn where you should search when you need to:

Define your topic
Conduct research in a specific discipline

Look below for information and a video on:

Wikipedia  - what's good and what's bad!
Cautions from IB on Using Free Online Encyclopedias (such as Wikipedia)


Wikipedia is a very popular encyclopedia; it is a free, web-based, collaborative, multilingual encyclopedia project.  Anyone can edit virtually any of the entries so the information in Wikipedia should be treated with caution and must always be checked for accuracy.  There are some things to keep in mind when using Wikipedia.

On the positive side:  Wikipedia can be useful for background information (which you must check in an authoritative source) and entries frequently include a bibliography which will often lead to further useful information sources.

On the negative side: The number of pages keeps growing, and the group of volunteer editors and monitors keeps shrinking, so it gets increasingly difficult  for Wikipedia to make sure all content is accurate and error-free.  The number of hoaxes posing as factual Wikipedia articles keeps increasing.  

Dewey, Caitlin. "The Story Behind Jar’Edo Wens, the Longest-running Hoax in Wikipedia History." Washington Post [Washington, D.C.] 15 Apr.       2015: n.  pag. Washington Post. Web. 23 July 2015. <  news/the-intersect/wp/2015/04/15/the-great-wikipedia-hoax/>.

Author John Green explains everything you need to know about Wikipedia in the video below.

"Wikipedia is often maligned by teachers and Twitter trolls alike as an unreliable source. And yes, it does sometimes have major errors and omissions, but Wikipedia is also the Internet's largest general reference work and as such an incredibly powerful tool. Today we'll discuss using Wikipedia for good - to help us get a birds-eye view of content, better evaluate information with lateral reading, and find trustworthy primary sources."

Cautions from IB on Using Free Online Encyclopedias (such as Wikipedia)

Hazard warning attention sign - Britannica ImageQuestAs a tool for research, free online encyclopedias, such as Wikipedia, can be valuable resources, but there are several reasons why students should be cautious in using them:

  • they tend to be general encyclopedias
  • very often the author is unknown
  • there is no guarantee that the content meets standards of academic rigour—it may not, for example, have been through a process of peer review
  • the content can be unstable, in that it can change at any time.

A bibliography that only cites these for reference or an argument that is overly reliant on them will not demonstrate the necessary “range of sources” required by the assessment criteria for the extended essay. They may also not be relevant or appropriate for the research question being explored.  Many online encyclopedias are not scholarly sources; however, if used appropriately and critically they can offer a useful starting point for many students undertaking research. 

If you are using free online encyclopedias, you should do the following.

  • Follow the references provided by the encyclopedia; this will help to verify the information given.
  • Consider whether the article is part of a larger project, where a number of people are contributing to the discussion. If it is, then it implies that the writers have more than a casual interest in the topic being written about.
  • Look to see if there is a rating for the information provided. If there is then this means that the information has undergone some sort of peer review and been given a rating. While not the same as an academic peer review, it can aid the judgment of the “quality” of the information.

The key point to remember is if you do use information that is found on the Internet, you are responsible for ensuring that it is both reliable and accurate. You can produce an annotated bibliography as a way to explain to your supervisor about the quality of your sources. An annotated bibliography provides a concise summary of each source and some assessment of its value and relevance.

Adapted from "The research and writing process; Academic honesty, Using online encyclopedias and other similar information websites", from Extended Essay Guide, International Baccalaureate Organization, 2018.

Preliminary Reading - Questions to Ask

After you decide on a topic of interest you should undertake some preliminary general reading around the issue.  Questions you must consider at this stage are:

  • What has already been written about the topic?
  • Was it easy to find sources of information?
  • Is there a range of different sources available?
  • Is there a range of views or perspectives on the topic?
  • What interesting questions have started to emerge from this reading?

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