On Citing Wikipedia

Let’s be clear: You should never, ever cite Wikipedia in an article or book, unless you writing about Wikipedia itself. But it drives me crazy when people hear the word “Wikipedia” and immediately respond, “Wikipedia? Give me a break. It’s so unreliable.”

There is nothing wrong with using Wikipedia to get a quick sense of a subject and to lead you to more reliable sources. Encyclopedias, survey-level textbooks, desk references, and similar resources have been used the same way for generations. If you are trying to nail down some definitive piece of information, then you should never settle for Wikipedia. As your starting point, however, I think there are few options that are much better.

For that matter, Wikipedia is an excellent resources for certain subjects, such as:

  • Controversial subjects that many people, with many different perspectives, care a great deal about. Theology is a great example. If Catholics, Calvinists, Wesleyans, Orthodox, and even Swedenborgians can come up with an article on justification that they all more or less accept, I bet that’s going to be a pretty decent article.
  • Obscure pop culture facts, like alternate versions of the comic book character Nightcrawler.
  • People you are encountering for the first time, and need to get a quick triangulation on them, like Emanuel Swedenborg.

I use Wikipedia everyday, and there’s nothing wrong with it. If Wikipedia is your only source of information, then there’s something wrong with you, but don’t blame Wikipedia.

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2 thoughts on “On Citing Wikipedia

  1. I totally agree. Were you around for my heated discussion about this? I was explaining that I tell my students that if they cite Wikipedia in their papers, I will fail them; however, they absolutely must USE Wikipedia in finding more reliable sources.

    And that said, Wikipedia totally saved me in grad school. I was encountering most twentieth-century philosophers for the first time (because my undergrad had a laughable humanities core), whereas most of my fellow students majored in philosophy or literature and already had experience with, say, Walter Benjamin. Wikipedia helped me brush up in a hurry before class discussions so I could keep up.

    • I’m glad I’m not alone! I think this has always been a trick in the academy. I remember my shock when one of my undergrad English professors revealed his use of Cliff Notes and similar summary guides to refresh his memory of books he read long ago or to get a quick overview of something before diving into it blindly.

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