Wikipedia and Research


Why I link to Wikipedia, but you still shouldn’t cite it in a paper

Wikipedia is a fantastic resource for finding out more. It’s reasonably trustworthy, even though it isn’t one hundred percent accurate. (Most textbooks aren’t one hundred percent accurate either, but at least they come with an author to take responsibility for that.) It’s free. It has links to new articles for words you don’t understand. This is a fantastic resource and ignoring it would be rather silly.

On the other hand, when you put a citation in a paper, you’re saying, “This is true and I know that because the person I’m citing said so. You can look at their work to check up on me or find out more.” (A small part of that is avoiding plagiarism. Quite a lot of it is making sure whoever reads your paper can check it makes sense for themselves.) When you cite Wikipedia, you’re saying, “This is true and I know that because someone on the internet edited Wikipedia and said so.” Not exactly convincing.

So does that mean you shouldn’t use Wikipedia to do research for things like papers? I don’t think so. It just means that you need to check who is cited in the Wikipedia article you’re reading. Then go and see how they explain it. (You may have to find the book that is cited in a library.) Now you (hopefully) have a source with an author to take responsibility for what’s said and some qualification to say it. That is a source that’s worth citing — and since you’ve already read the Wikipedia article, you have a head start on understanding what it’s saying.

Whatever sources you use, remember that it’s extremely rare for any source to be one hundred percent accurate. Use your brain, check what other people say and try to accept that mistakes happen, even to the best of us.

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