Stop Citing Wikipedia

I’m a big fan of Wikipedia. I was happy to report that the dynamic encyclopedia is just as good as Britannica. But there is a limit to what any encyclopedia can tell you. They are excellent places to go for a quick introduction to material that is otherwise unfamiliar to you. For example, if I want a review of cell cycle, I may check out the Wikipedia entry first as a quick refresher. But if I want to really know what’s going on, I’ll crack a textbook or read a review article from a serious scientific journal.

Wikipedia has its uses. One of them is not as a citable reference. I get extremely frustrated when students include citations to Wikipedia (or any other encyclopedia, dictionary, or webpage) in assignments. College students should feel comfortable navigating through the library (both the electronic and paper versions) to find relevant books and journal articles. I’m glad the creator of Wikipedia agrees with me. By the time a student reaches college, he should know how to find the primary source.

(Via Velcro City Tourist Board.)


  1. #1 Ben M
    June 17, 2006

    On a couple of occasions, when someone has asked me “Where can I go to learn more about X”, I have pointed them to a *specific edit* of a Wikipedia article—one which I have read myself and verified. That way, there’s no chance of inadvertently citing some crackpot/vandal/misinformed editor as though it were an authority.

  2. #2 Dan R.
    June 17, 2006

    I agree with you that citing the wiki is approximately equivalent to citing the Britannica, with the caveat that any cite has a revision date — not just the URL.

    It should be noted there are some areas where the Wiki is as comprehensive as a textbook. For instance, in their area of circuit design, there are 1200 pages (printed) worth of detailed theory on circuit design and analysis.

    So while I agree the “default” worth of wiki is that of a good encyclopedia — there are some areas or articles that are much more comprehensive.

  3. #3 Markk
    June 17, 2006

    Ok, I’ll bite. This is academic elitist crap. “Original” sources are an artifact of academics having to prove themselves by publishing. Is Britannica wrong in its facts? Is Wikipedia? If so then you have a duty to require a look at further sources. If not then citing the information you believe true from them is every bit as truthful as ANY OTHER SOURCE. I have read way far too many garbage academic papers to find some useful bit of information, to give them any more credibility than Britannica, for example. If the point is to find the original source, ok, then you have to look at it, but if the point is to cite pertinant facts, then compilations that are trusted are as good as anything else. If you don’t trust an encyclopedia, say so, don’t make other arguements.

  4. #4 Paul Decelles
    June 17, 2006

    But how about in blog entries? I often times link to Wikipedia if I just want to provide a quick non technical overview assuming the wiki entry clear.

    Part of me says that if we expect students to not do this then we shouldn’t either.

  5. #5 Jess
    June 18, 2006

    One of the perks of the class I taught last semester (“Literature in a Wired World”) was that the students and I got to discuss Wikipedia and its validity as a source in great detail (here’s the blog post on it, and at the bottom is a Wikipedia vandalism that we found in class and reposted to the blog before it was cleaned up). Instead of me just standing up there and saying “don’t cite Wikipedia,” they came to that conclusion themselves. Most classes, of course, don’t have time for that discussion, but making the comparison to other reference books — as one of my students did in her paper — kills two birds with one stone. I have definitely had freshmen treat dictionaries as sources, and I imagine that if you say “you shouldn’t cite Wikipedia for the same reasons you shouldn’t cite a dictionary,” they’ll understand that reference works are not primary (or even valid secondary) sources.

  6. #6 Amit
    June 18, 2006

    Yeah, I have to agree with you. I often link to wikipedia on blog postings. However, I wouldn’t cite the wiki in a term paper or manuscript.

  7. #7 Paul S
    June 19, 2006

    I’ve always found the best use of Wikipedia to be in online posts and emails. It provides a reliable source of basic information that’s easily presented as a hyperlink. In any sort of serious or academic venue, though, no. Primary source material trumps whenever it’s available, and the student should always present his or her own interpretation rather than regurgitating pap.

    One problem, from the student’s view, is that the requirements for papers sometimes discourage or even forbid thoughtful interpretation. This is more true in high school than in college, but high school informs college habits.

  8. #8 Anonymous
    June 28, 2006

    Markk: “Academic” is not a full synonym of “Scientific”.

    Original source scientific papers describe the motivation behind, methods used, results found and implications of empirical primary research. This is not the same as gleaning meaning from reading many books, or synthesizing a conclusion from the underdeveloped opinions of others.

    Going to the paper that describes an experiment or observation, written by the person who designed that experiment or recorded that observation, repressents the closest one can get to replication of that work. That’s why the scientific primary literature is de rigeur for all scientific writing.

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