Thursday, August 16, 2007

Don't Cite Wikipedia!

I've now seen enough cases of students and journalists, and even some academics, citing Wikipedia as a source to cause alarm. I think it is time academics educate themselves about what Wikipedia is and isn't, and then teach their students how to use it, so that the situation doesn't get out of hand.

The first thing to stress is that Wikipedia can be a very, very useful tool in your research. I am a firm believer in Wikipedia's potential to transform both how we come to know something and what we think it means to "know" something. I am also certain that, used properly, Wikipedia can make us aware of facts we would otherwise not have been exposed to.

But none of that justifies citing Wikipedia when reporting names, dates , places, statistics, facts, events and ideas in your own writing. First of all, Wikipedia is not a reliable source: there is no guarantee that the information in its articles is correct (i.e., no one to blame if it is not). Second, Wikipedia is a not a stable source. That means that your readers are likely to find a wholly different article than you did and this makes it impossible for them to check your sources.

Wikipedia should be treated as hearsay. Articles can vary greatly in quality and are subject to vandalism, sometimes very "sneaky" vandalism. You might bump into something interesting, but you have to check for yourself whether or not it is true. To this end, Wikipedia's "reliable sources" policy is a good thing. You will often find that facts in the article are sourced to reliable, mainstream, published accounts. (This is because it is a way of resolving controversies between editors of the articles.) These sources are what you must evaluate: you then cite them, not Wikipedia.

My motto is, "Wikipedia is a dependable source of reliable sources. It is not itself a reliable source of information." Sometimes Wikipedia won't provide its sources. It's not 100%. But it's getting better and better.

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