Monday, December 15, 2008

Citing Wikipedia (i.e., why not to)

This week I'm going to be posting mainly about basic scholarship, i.e., the way your writing develops in relation to your reading. It is an important part of how you "enter the conversation" that constitutes research in your field.

Even Wikipedia's founder, Jimbo Wales, advises against doing it, but you can always find someone who will defend the practice of citing Wikipedia. Here are some clear statements against it by the Writing Center at Yale and the Williams College Libraries. And here, for good measure, is Wikipedia's own cautious statement. Most of this advice is directed at undergraduates, perhaps because it assumed that scholars wouldn't even consider the idea.

There is, unfortunately, some evidence to the contrary.* Lisa Spiro's post is interesting, but I think it misses a very basic point, which the Yale Writing Center puts in forceful terms: "to rely on Wikipedia—even when the material is accurate—is to position your work as inexpert and immature." The key word here is "rely". Any specific criticism of Wikipedia can be countered, but why on earth would we ever rely on Wikipedia? Scholars do the research that Wikipedia sometimes summarizes very nicely (sometimes wholly ineptly). Wikipedia relies on scholarship; each article is based on "reliable sources". Not the other way around.

I want to stress that the question is whether you can cite Wikipedia as a source, not whether you can use Wikipedia as a resource. That distinction is absolutely crucial. Spiro forgets it when she makes the following argument, for example: (the quote is from Wales's remarks)

"I still would say that an encyclopedia is just not the kind of thing you would reference as a source in an academic paper. Particularly not an encyclopedia that could change instantly and not have a final vetting process". But an encyclopedia can be a valid starting point for research. Indeed, The Craft of Research, a classic guide to research, advises that researchers consult reference works such as encyclopedias to gain general knowledge about a topic and discover related works.

An argument for consulting Wikipedia, however, is not an argument for citing it. An argument for starting somewhere is not an argument for staying there. Moreover, she cites the second edition of The Craft of Research. As I have pointed out in a earlier post, the third edition is unequivocal: "Few experienced researchers trust Wikipedia, so under no circumstances cite it as a source of evidence (unless your topic is the Wikipedia itself)" (37, my emphasis).

My view is that there is never a reason to cite Wikipedia as a source in your academic writing. Never. Use it for the purpose that it was intended: as a starting point for serious inquiry of your own. I also like to point out a side benefit of the "anyone can edit" policy: you will sometimes find an interesting and unorthodox angle on the subject matter that, properly speaking, shouldn't even be in an encyclopedia (because it expresses a subjective or minority point of view as an uncontroversial fact). That angle may shed new light on your own position. But it should always, always, always be developed on the basis of much more reliable sources. (These will sometimes be provided in the the Wikipedia article itself.)

Beyond that, we might approach Wikipedia as a community to be studied ethnographically through first-hand observation, interaction, and interviews. In such cases, however, I don't think we should treat the various versions of the articles as "primary sources" (as we might treat, for example, a novel). What you can do is describe what Wikipedia says on a particular topic, and in so doing, you may of course quote from it. Here you should provide the URL, but keep in mind that Wikipedia has now become an object of study, and there are a lot of things you need to do in order to make sure that you are seeing that object properly. Do you understand the revision history of the article you are talking about? Have you studied the discussion that led to the version you are reading and do you understand the consensus? Do you really understand what Wikipedia is and how it works?**

Matt Kerschenbaum, whom Spiro cites, has argued that (1) there are "content domains" about which Wikipedia is essentially reliable and (2) you can use your understanding of how Wikipedia works to see whether the article you are citing is subject to controversy. On this basis, he says, you can make a reasoned judgement about "whether or not to rely on Wikipedia". I don't want to deny the first point. There are certainly content domains of Wikipedia that are more accurate than others; and some articles are quite good. Wikipedia even has a form of internal (but not formal) review that marks articles as "good" or "featured". But I strongly disagree with the second point, which Spiro restates as follows:

With Wikipedia, as with other sources, scholars should use critical judgment in analyzing its reliability and appropriateness for citation. If scholars carefully evaluate a Wikipedia article’s accuracy, I don’t think there should be any shame in citing it.

I really do think we should be ashamed. Some sources are simply not worth the trouble of our critical judgment; the unreliability of Wikipedia is pretty much right there on its surface. Use your critical judgment to assess the facts presented in Wikipedia, not the source that presents it. Once you have confirmed the fact, cite the source that allowed you to do that, not the website that made the original claim. We do not just rely on our sources ourselves; we are asking our readers to rely on them as well. We owe each other better sources than "the encyclopedia anyone can edit".

* Update: I'm now trying to do study of my own to determine the extent of the problem in organization and management studies. Preliminary results are quite good. The Social Science Citation index registers only 28 citations of Wikipedia, none of them in major management publications. I've only found one instance of what Spiro calls "straight citation" and it occurs in Tourism Management. It does look as though medical and legal publications allow Wikipedia as a reference (I don't have access to check them out in detail). But even here, like I say, there aren't many.

** This paragraph was rewritten on Dec. 19, 2008.


orchycore said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
orchycore said...

I definitely agree, you should not cite Wikipedia as it's not a primary source. This a new site that gets around this problem by providing references inside the Wikipedia article.