Wikipedia

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Wikipedia is an on-line encyclopaedia which most students will have heard of. It calls itself "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit". It is a resource that most students will have used at least once; and many of those will have been warned off it by their tutors, sometimes with dire threats. Both the student who uses Wikipedia and the tutor who rejects it can be right.

  • An "online encyclopedia" is a brilliant resource. It is a good place to find detail of knowledge that should be common knowledge - but that not every student knows. It is the first place in which to look, for example, for a brief biography of a person that is mentioned in one of your books, but of whom you have no knowledge; it is good on dates, and historical events about which there is little dispute. It has great access to further information. (All articles are supposed to include the sources from which they are derived, and none are supposed to be written without supporting evidence.)

So there are good reasons for using Wikipedia as a first step in researching details, particularly of general knowledge.

  • But an encyclopaedia "which anyone can edit" cannot be trusted. Here are some reasons:
    • In theory, it is possible for you to edit an article that you subsequently cite. No responsible academic would consider Wikipedia to be reliable, for this and for other reasons.
    • Articles on controversial subjects are sometimes biased to one side or the other, at the whim of the latest editor: these are usually dampened down by other editors keen to preserve Wikipedia's central policy of maintaining "a neutral point of view"; but given the nature of web communication, you may use a 'bad' version of an article that has since been made 'better'. And how are you to judge?
    • As anyone can edit it, the editor or writer of the article you are reading may not be the acknowledged expert in the field. (A student cannot always know who are the experts, particularly when starting a particular course of study or assignment - getting to know the people in the field is one of the things that students need to learn.)
    • Even if the original writer were the best in the field, subsequent editing may have distorted the text.
    • Not all the principles of Wikipedia are followed all the time. From time to time you will see notices such as "Please help rewrite this article from a neutral point of view" or "[citation needed]" - there is even a category of All articles with unsourced statements (containing tens of thousands of articles). This suggests that Wikipedia cannot be relied' on.
- and so on.

So there are good reasons why you should not use Wikipedia as supporting evidence in the references in your academic writing.

Students should aim to know more than Wikipedia about their own subjects. Your aim should be to achieve this by your own study. Never use Wikipedia to research the topic of your assignment (after, perhaps, the first hour's overview and hunting for booklists and recommendations).

You should also aim to develop the skill of judging and evaluating sources. What has been written above should help you to judge that Wikipedia may be a good source for general knowledge material outside your field, but is a very bad source on which to rely for your developing expertise in your chosen subject. The writers of AWE use it from time to time, to check dates, the wording or spelling of titles and such matters; be it is rarely referenced in AWE, because we don't use it for the matters on which our readers are consulting us: we only use it for matters in the public domain.

See also wikipedia's own advice on the subject. The version current on 6th January 2019 is at https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Researching_with_Wikipedia&oldid=844682698. Check the newest version too: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Researching_with_Wikipedia.

There is an interesting slideshow presentation by Andrew Gray, former) Wikipedian in Residence at the British Library to the JIBS on 22nd July 2014, available at http://www.slideshare.net/JIBSUK/wikipedia-jibs-draft-3