Thursday, December 04, 2008

Citing and Crediting

Jonathan raises an important point in his comments to my last post. If you find that Wikipedia is a great help to your research—if, for example, it is the place you learn some important detail about your subject—then you are free to (not obligated to) thank the project. Over the long term, such acknowledgements by respected academics may even change its status in the academic community. As Booth, Colomb and Williams put it, "Few experienced researchers trust Wikipedia, so under no circumstances cite it as a source of evidence (unless your topic is the Wikipedia itself)" (Craft of Research, 3rd edition, p. 37). There are still technical reasons not to trust Wikipedia as we might trust Britannica, but maybe one day a convention will emerge that will allow us to cite Wikipedia. That day has not yet arrived.

More generally, keep in mind that there is a difference in general between referencing a source for the purpose of telling the reader why to believe what you're saying (the primary reason) and the purpose of thanking the author for his or her contribution. In some cases, keep in mind that accomplishing the latter might actually undermine your ability to do the former. Thanking certain sources (depending on how you do it) might raise doubts about your scholarly judgment or just "the company you keep" (as Booth might put it).

If your original source is unreliable in your judgment then you have to do some work checking the accuracy of what you learn there. You may acknowledge the source of inspiration to do that work. (You might never have known if not for that original dubious source, after all.) But remember to take credit for the fact-checking yourself. Also, if checking the facts in question means simply looking it up in an authoritative reference work or other work on the subject, notice that the source you are thinking of crediting probably just got it from there. And if it had just cited its source, your work would have been that much easier.

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