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Wikipedia Use Policy

Page history last edited by Alan Liu 6 years, 9 months ago


To the Student: Appropriate Use of Wikipedia

by Alan Liu (last rev. Aug. 23, 2017)


In recent years, Wikipedia 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:


  1. 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 their field.

    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 or consensual,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.)

  2. Wikipedia has special limitations because it is an online encyclopedia written by a self-regulated, 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:

    1. Wikipedia can be 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.

    2. 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 pages (pages 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): <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Wikipedia_protected_pages>. (See also the bibliography appended below on  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.

    3. WikipediaStudents 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 "view 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 the history page of the article on "George Washington.")


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:




About This Student Wikipedia Use Policy Statement


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):




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