In every syllabus, I tell students to use “quality sources” in their research papers. But that only raises the question of what qualifies as a “quality source.” One student wanted to know if he could cite the Bible as one of his sources. After all, you can’t get much more quality than that! Another took things a step further and asked if individual books of the Bible counted as different sources. Talk about a quick way to pad your bibliography.
But the question everyone wants to ask: what about Wikipedia?
Before I say any more, let’s be clear about one thing: I like Wikipedia. When I want to learn about something new, Wikipedia is usually my first stop. It’s a great place to surf for entry-level information on almost any topic.
I often hear people argue that you shouldn’t use Wikipedia because it can be inaccurate. So what? All sources are inaccurate at times. We’re humans. Inaccuracy comes with the territory. Wikipedia’s fallibility just means that you should use it wisely–like any other source. And this means using it for what it’s good at:
- brief overviews of complex subjects
- links to related topics
- links to other (possibly good) sources
- ideas for further research
Nonetheless, here’s an important rule to follow: Don’t cite Wikipedia as an authoritative source in your research paper. Ever.
But why? If inaccuracy isn’t the problem, what is? There are two good reasons you shouldn’t cite Wikipedia, and they matter for how you use other online sources as well.
1. Author: Unlike most information sources, there’s no easy way to know who authored Wikipedia content. It could be someone with a Ph.D. in the relevant field or your 13-year-old neighbor. And, if you’re citing this data to support the argument of your research paper, that’s a problem. Your reader has no way of knowing whether you’re offering a legitimate source to back up your argument. (Why should I care what your 13-year-old neighbor thinks?) And again, this isn’t because Wikipedia is inaccurate. The best scholars in the field can still be wrong. But citing a known and recognized authority strengthens your argument far more than the unknown authors of a Wikipedia article.
2. Stability: One of Wikipedia’s great strengths is that people are constantly updating, correcting, and revising its content. This open-source approach to information is a great way to produce a large body of information about an amazingly diverse range of topics. But the resulting fluidity is also a problem for the researcher. If you cite Wikipedia in your paper, you have no way of knowing whether it will still be there for your reader when the time comes. You can cite the date that you accessed the information, but that doesn’t really help your reader. Should I just take your word for it that it really was there? That’s not terribly helpful.
As an example of a web site that tries to address both of these problems and offer online content that is much more useful to the researcher, check out the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Unlike many internet sources, the Stanford Encyclopedia has done two things that makes it an outstanding research source: (1) every article is written by a recognized authority in the relevant field; and (2) every article is archived so you can be sure the information you’re citing will still be around even if the article is later revised.
But, even if you’re working with a web site that is not as well designed as the Stanford Encyclopedia, you can still do a few things to strengthen your internet research.
1. Check the Author: Before you do anything, find out who wrote the content and whether they’re credible. That will tell you whether the content is something you might be able to use authoritatively, or if it’s just interesting background information.
2. Validate the Data: What do you do if you see something in a source like Wikipedia (interesting, but not authoritative) that you’d like to use in your paper? You need to validate it. In other words, you need to see if you can find that same information in a more authoritative source. If so, cite the authoritative source and you’re good to go. If not, don’t use it. It’s that simple.
3. Record the date: This one’s obvious. Your reader needs to know the date of any information you’re using to support your argument.
4. Archive the content: This is the one many students neglect. Remember, the internet is fluid. So I strongly recommend saving the web page on your own computer if you’ll be using it as a source in your paper. You’ll still cite the original source, but you’ll have static content to refer back to if the web source ever changes.
The bottom line: know what kind of web site you’re using and use it accordingly. Wikipedia doesn’t cause bad research. Bad researchers do.