To the Student: Appropriate Use of Wikipedia
In recent years, Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org/)
has become one of the most important and useful resources
on the Internet. Created by an open community of authors
(anyone can contribute, edit, or correct articles), it
has become a powerful resource for researchers to consult
alongside other established library and online resources.
As in the case of all tools, however, its value is a function
of appropriateness. In the case of college-level essays
or research papers, students should keep in mind the following
two limitations, one applying to all encyclopedias, and
the other specifically to Wikipedia:
- As in the case of any encyclopedia, Wikipedia is not
appropriate as the primary or sole reference for anything
that is central to an argument, complex, or controversial. "Central
to an argument" means that the topic in question
is crucial for the paper. (For example, a paper about
Shakespeare or postmodernism cannot rely on an encyclopedia
article on those topics.) "Complex" means anything
requiring analysis, critical thought, or evaluation.
(For example, it is not persuasive to cite an encyclopedia
on "spirituality.") "Controversial" means
anything that requires listening to the original voices
in a debate because no consensus or conventional view
has yet emerged. (For example, cite an encyclopedia on
the historical facts underlying a recent political election,
but not on the meaning or trends indicated by that election.)
These limitations are due to the fact that encyclopedia articles are
second- or third-hand summaries. They are excellent starting points
for learning about something. But a college-level research paper or
critical essay needs to consult directly the articles, books, or other
sources mentioned by an encyclopedia article and use those as the reference.
The best such sources are usually those that have been refereed ("peer-reviewed" by
other scholars before acceptance for publication, which is the case
for most scholarly journals and books) or, in the case of current events,
journalistic or other resources that are relatively authoritative in
However, a Wikipedia citation can be an appropriate convenience
when the point being supported is minor, non-controversial, or also
supported by other evidence.
In addition, Wikipedia is an appropriate source for some extremely
recent topics (especially in popular culture or technology) for which
it provides the sole or best available synthetic, analytical, or historical
discussion. In such cases, however, due diligence requires at least
glancing at the editing "history" of the article (available
through the "history" tab at the top) to get a sense of how controversial
unstable or stable, the article has been. (Such due diligence is like
sticking one's hand in the shower before getting in: not a precise
measure of reliabillity, but a good way not to get burned.)
- Wikipedia has special limitations because it is an
online encyclopedia written by a largely unregulated,
worldwide, and often anonymous community of contributors.
The principle of "many-eyes" policing upon
which Wikipedia depends for quality-control (that is,
many people looking at and correcting articles) works
impressively well in many cases. However:
- Wikipedia is currently an uneven resource.
For example, articles on scientific, technological,
or popular culture topics can sometimes be
more reliable, vetted (corrected by a community
experts), or current than articles on humanistic
issues of the sort that students in literature,
history, and other humanities majors often
need to research.
- Some articles in Wikipedia are unreliable
because they are the contested terrain of "edit
wars," political protest, or vandalism.
Such articles include both those on obviously
controversial topics and on unexpected topics.
For a sobering sense of the limitations of
Wikipedia, consult the long list of "protected" Wikipedia
articles (articles that Wikipedia no longer,
or at least not for now, allows users to edit
in the normal way in order to protect them
from edit wars or other mischief): <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Protected_page>.
(See also the bibliography appended
below on recent controversies about the reliability
of Wikipedia.) Students should also keep in
mind that Wikipedia--like the Internet as a
whole--is edited globally. This means that
topics related to "United States," "China," "Tony
Blair," or "World Cup soccer," for
example (and many others), are contested terrain.
- Students should be aware that Wikipedia
is a dynamic, constantly mutating resource.
Even if it is appropriate to cite it as a reference,
the citation is not fully meaningful unless
it includes the date on which the page was
accessed, which would allow a reader to use
the Wikipedia "history" feature to
look up the specific version of the article
being referenced. Indeed, Wikipedia articles
on some topics change so frequently (even to
the extent of vandals "reverting" to
earlier scandalous misinformation) that a crucial
citation should really include the exact time
of access. (Where citation to a time-stamped
version of an article is desired, one can make
use of the version-specific URLs available
through the time-date links on each article's
history page--e.g., in the link labeled "17:30,
1 April 2007 76" on
page of the article on "George
Students should feel free to
consult Wikipedia as one of the most powerful instruments
for opening knowledge that the Internet has yet produced.
But it is not a one-stop-shop for reliable knowledge. Indeed,
the term "encyclopedia" is somewhat to blame.
Because it is communal, dynamic, and unrefereed, Wikipedia
is not just an encyclopedia of knowledge. It is better
thought of as a combination of encyclopedia and "blog." It
is the world's blog.
Selected Bibliography of Articles
on the Controversy Regarding Wikipedia's Reliability:
- Steven Musil, "Wikipedia's Woes," C/NET News.com,
9 December 2005 <http://news.com.com/Week+in+review+Wikipedias+woes/2100-1083_3-5988388.html>
- John Seigenthaler, "A False Wikipedia 'Biography'," USA
Today.com, 29 November 2005 <http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2005-11-29-wikipedia-edit_x.htm>
- Daniel Terdiman, "Study: Wikipedia as Accurate
as Britannica," C/Net News.com, 15 December 2005 <
- Ray Cha, "Another Round: Britannica versus Wikipedia," if:book,
31 March 2006 <http://www.futureofthebook.org/blog/archives/2006/03/another_round_britannica_versu.html>
- Lisa Vaas, "Wikipedia Erects Accuracy Firewall," 19
December 2005 <http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1895,1903728,00.asp>
- Katie Hafner, "Growing Wikipedia Revises Its 'Anyone
Can Edit' Policy," New York Times, 17 June 2006 <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/17/technology/17wiki.html?_r=
About This Student Wikipedia Use
This policy statement was originally drafted
in June 2006 and posted with a request for comment on the
Humanist list. It was subsequently picked
up by others and posted to various blogs, where it has
accrued a surprising amount of response. My thanks to
all the following listserv and blog communities (and others)
for suggestions. Version 1.0 of the final statement was
posted here on April 1, 2007.
Listserv and blog discussions
of this statement (in its draft version):
Don't cite this page:
by Professor Liu at UCSB.
Edited by: email@example.com on