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Citing Wikipedia

A meme that has been going around is that you can’t cite Wikipedia.

You can’t Cite Wikipedia Academically

Now it’s well known and generally agreed that you can’t cite Wikipedia for a scientific paper or other serious academic work. This makes sense firstly because Wikipedia changes, both in the short term (including vandalism) and in the long term (due to changes in technology, new archaeological discoveries, current events, etc). But you can link to a particular version of a Wikipedia page, you can just click on the history tab at the top of the screen and then click on the date of the version for which you want a direct permanent link.

The real reason for not linking to Wikipedia articles in academic publications is that you want to reference the original research not a report on it, which really makes sense. Of course the down-side is that you might reference some data that is in the middle of a 100 page report, in which case you might have to mention the page number as well. Also often the summary of the data you desire simply isn’t available anywhere else, someone might for example take some facts from 10 different pages of a government document and summarise them neatly in a single paragraph on Wikipedia. This isn’t a huge obstacle but just takes more time to create your own summary with references.

When Wikipedia is Suitable

The real issue however is how serious the document you are writing is and how much time you are prepared to spend on it. If I’m writing a message to a mailing list or a comment on a blog post then I probably won’t bother reading all the primary sources of Wikipedia pages, it would just waste too much of my time. Wikipedia is adequate for the vast majority of mailing list discussions.

If I’m discussing several choices for software with some colleagues we will probably start by reading the Wikipedia pages, if one option doesn’t appear to have the necessary features (according to Wikipedia) then we may ask the vendor if those features are really missing and if so whether they will be added in the next version – but we may decide that we don’t really need the features in question and modify our deployment plans. Many business decisions are made with incomplete data, time is money and there often isn’t time to do everything you want to do. Using Wikipedia as a primary source for business decisions is a way of trading off a little accuracy for a huge time saving. This is significantly better than the old fashioned approach of comparing products by reading their brochures – companies LIE in their advertising!

When writing blog posts the choice of whether to use Wikipedia as a reference depends on the point that you are trying to make and how serious the post is. If the post isn’t really serious or contentious or if the Wikipedia reference is for some facts that are not likely to be disputed then Wikipedia will probably do. For some posts a reference to a primary source will be better.

A blog post that references data that is behind a pay-wall (such as a significant portion of academic papers and news articles) is practically of less use than a post that cites Wikipedia. In most cases Wikipedia references free primary sources on the Internet (although it does sometimes refer to dead tree products and data that is behind a pay-wall). In the minority of cases where the primary references for a Wikipedia page are not available for free on the Internet there will be people searching for freely available references to replace the non-free ones. So if you refer to a Wikipedia page with non-free references a future reader might find that someone has added free references to it.

The Annoying People

One thing that often happens is that an Internet discussion contains no references for anything – it’s all just unsupported assertions. Then if anyone cites Wikipedia someone jumps in with “you can’t cite Wikipedia“. If you want to criticise Wikipedia references then please first start by criticising people who state opinions as fact and people who provide numbers without telling anyone where they came from! The Guinness Book of Records (now known as “Guinness World Records”) was devised as a reference to cite in debates in pubs [1]. It seems that most of the people who dismiss references to Wikipedia on the net would prefer that Internet debates have lower requirements for references than a pub debate.

When Wikipedia is cited in an online discussion it is usually a matter of one mouse click to check the references for the data in question. If Wikipedia happens to be wrong then anyone who cares can correct it. Saying “the Wikipedia page you cited had some transcription errors in copying data from primary sources and some of the other data was not attributed, I’ve corrected the numbers and noted that it contains original research” would be a very effective rebuttal to an argument that relies on data in Wikipedia. Saying “you can’t cite Wikipedia” means little, particularly if you happen to be strongly advocating an opposing position while not providing any references.

If one person cites an academic paper and someone else cites Wikipedia then it seems reasonable to assume that the academic paper is the better reference. But when it’s a choice between Wikipedia and no reference then surely Wikipedia should win! Also references to non-free data are not much good for supporting an argument, that’s really just unverified claims as far as most people can determine – therefore the issue becomes how much the person citing the non-free reference can be trusted to correctly understand and summarise the non-free data.

Also it has to be considered that not all primary sources are equal. Opinion pieces should be considered to have a fairly low value and while they are authoritative for representing the opinion of the person who wrote them they often prove little else – unless they happen to cite good references which brings them to the same level as Wikipedia. The main benefit for linking to opinion pieces is that it saves time typing and gives a better product for the readers – it’s sometimes easier to find someone else expressing an opinion well than to express it yourself.

So please, don’t criticise me for citing Wikipedia unless others in the discussion are citing better references. If most people are not citing any references or only citing opinion pieces then a Wikipedia page may be the best reference that is being provided!

2 comments to Citing Wikipedia

  • Cùran

    You can also use the “Cite this page” link for generating correct links and license information. Also nice: that link offers a lot of widely spread formats for citations like BibTeX. This page isn’t necessarily available on all language versions but the largest two (en and de) offer it for sure.


  • Yeah you can cite Wikipedia for a point in time.

    But I’ve just released this tool here which lets you easily find real citations for Wikipedia articles

    We’re based in AU too if you’d like to talk about it some time!