Wikipedia and Class Papers

“Can I use Wikipedia as a source for my paper?” I’ve been asked that question, or some variation on it, many times over the years. My short answer is: it’s fine to use Wikipedia, if you do so with caution, and if you don’t confess to it. I’ll expand on each of the three parts of that answer, from last to first.

Don’t confess to using Wikipedia. I’ll support that advice with a quote from the Wikipedia article on Academic Use: “citation of Wikipedia in research papers may be considered unacceptable, because Wikipedia is not considered a credible or authoritative source.” In more pragmatic terms: many professors disapprove of student use of Wikipedia.

If you use Wikipedia, do so with caution. The quality of Wikipedia articles varies. A great many are good, and many are better than good. A good Wikipedia article provides (at least) two things: a clear and accurate summary of its subject; and relevant references.

If you are thinking of using a Wikipedia article, test its value for you and for your paper. What aspects of the subject are most important to you and to your paper? Which of the article’s references are most relevant to those aspects? Do the referenced works say what the Wikipedia article says they say? If so, put the appropriate points in your paper, and use the references you got from Wikipedia. Don’t reference Wikipedia itself.

It’s fine to use Wikipedia. To be more specific, it’s fine to use Wikipedia articles that meet criteria such as those in the previous paragraph. If an article doesn’t meet those criteria, then don’t use that article. If an article does meet those criteria, them use it, but don’t admit use by including the article among your references.

If you’ve read this far, I thank you, and I’m interested in your reaction, be you student, professor, Wikipedia contributor, or whatever. So please feel free to comment.

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