Wikipedia: “Wikipedia is not a reliable source”

I wrote recently about how many of my otherwise sharp students were “Google fundamentalists” who argued, to simplify a bit, that “if it’s in Google, it’s valid.” These are often the same students who insist they should be able to use Wikipedia as a source for research.

I’ve been skimming Wikipedia’s own policies for writing and research, and Lo! The Great Wikipedia itself tells its writers the very things I was trying to tell my young fundies. Maybe hearing from the Great Wiki God’s own mouth that Wikipedia and blogs should not be taken on faith, and are not considered reliable sources, will bring them out of Digital Barbarism and into the Enlightenment.

So below, brothers and sisters in Reason, are chapter and verse from the Wikipedia Scriptures themselves, warning the faithful not to rely on Wikipedia, blogs, other wikis, forums, self-published books, or textbooks for research. Nice caveats apply in some cases to spur further discussion.

I share for those who share my pain [emphases added]:

  • Wikipedia:Reliable source examples – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    • full Wikipedia page
    • Are wikis reliable sources?

    • Wikis, including Wikipedia and other wikis sponsored by the Wikimedia Foundation, are not regarded as reliable sources. However, wikis are excellent places to locate primary and secondary sources.

    • Are weblogs reliable sources? (more below the fold…)

      In many cases, no. Most private weblogs (“blogs”), especially those hosted by blog-hosting services such as Blogger, are self-published sources; many of them published pseudonymously. There is no fact-checking process and no guarantee of quality of reliability. Information from a privately-owned blog may be usable in an article about that blog or blogger under the self-publication provision of the verifiability policy.

    • Weblog material written by well-known professional researchers writing within their field, or well-known professional journalists, may be acceptable, especially if hosted by a university, newspaper or employer (a typical example is Language Log, which is already cited in several articles, e.g. Snowclone, Drudge Report). Usually, subject experts will publish in sources with greater levels of editorial control such as research journals, which should be preferred over blog entries if such sources are available.
    • Are web forums and blog talkbacks reliable sources?

      Web forums and the talkback section of weblogs are rarely regarded as reliable. While they are often controlled by a single party (as opposed to the distributed nature of Usenet), many still permit anonymous commentary and we have no way of verifying the identity of a poster. Some however, are edited by reliable organizations, and therefore may possibly be justified as exceptions.

    • Briefly: published scholarly sources from academic presses should be used.
    • full Wikipedia page here

      • Self-published and questionable sources

        Questionable sources

        Questionable sources are those with a poor reputation for checking the facts, or with no editorial oversight. Such sources include websites and publications expressing views that are widely acknowledged as extremist, or promotional in nature, or which rely heavily on rumors and personal opinions….

        Self-published sources (online and paper)

        Anyone can create a website or pay to have a book published, then claim to be an expert in a certain field. For that reason self-published media—whether books, newsletters, personal websites, open wikis, blogs, personal pages on social networking sites, Internet forum postings, or tweets—are largely not acceptable.

        “Blogs” in this context refers to personal and group blogs. Some newspapers host interactive columns that they call blogs, and these may be acceptable as sources so long as the writers are professionals and the blog is subject to the newspaper’s full editorial control. Posts left by readers may never be used as sources.

        Self-published material may, in some circumstances, be acceptable when produced by an established expert on the topic of the article whose work in the relevant field has previously been published by reliable third-party publications….

    • Wikipedia articles should be based on reliable secondary sources. This means that while primary or tertiary sources can be used to support specific statements, the bulk of the article should rely on secondary sources.

      Tertiary sources such as compendia, encyclopedias, textbooks, and other summarizing sources may be used to give overviews or summaries, but should not be used in place of secondary sources for detailed discussion. Wikipedia itself, although a tertiary source, should not be used as a source within articles, nor should any mirrors or forks of Wikipedia be accepted as reliable sources for any purpose.

    • Primary sources, on the other hand, are often difficult to use appropriately. While they can be reliable in many situations, they must be used with caution.

37 thoughts on “Wikipedia: “Wikipedia is not a reliable source””

  1. Would I cite Wikipedia in a paper? No. But it’s still where I turn first for an overview or to look up a quick fact.

    Wikipedia is a great encyclopedia, but encyclopedias should never be considered valid sources for any sort of academic paper. At best, they’re tertiary sources.

    Sadly, I think far too many teachers misunderstand this. They shouldn’t rail against Wikipedia for being editable by many or because it’s on the web—just call it an encyclopedia. Any teacher who accepts Encyclopedia Britannica as a source but not Wikipedia is a hypocrite.

    1. No, Wikipedia is NOT even in the same league as Encyclopedias! It’s NOT an encyclopedia at all! It’s edited by a bunch of brain-dead morons who call themselves the “truth-finders”, when all they do is take out VALID information! Look kid, if you want to use an encyclopedia, use a REAL one, called Britannica!

      1. Joe, a quick fact-check with a simple Google search complicates your blanket claim. I quote:

        many critics have tried to downplay its role as a source of valid information and have often pointed to the Encyclopedia Britannica as an example of an accurate reference.

        For its study, Nature chose articles from both sites in a wide range of topics and sent them to what it called “relevant” field experts for peer review. The experts then compared the competing articles–one from each site on a given topic–side by side, but were not told which article came from which site. Nature got back 42 usable reviews from its field of experts.

        In the end, the journal found just eight serious errors, such as general misunderstandings of vital concepts, in the articles. Of those, four came from each site. They did, however, discover a series of factual errors, omissions or misleading statements. All told, Wikipedia had 162 such problems, while Britannica had 123.

        That averages out to 2.92 mistakes per article for Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia.

        “An expert-led investigation carried out by Nature–the first to use peer review to compare Wikipedia and Britannica’s coverage of science,” the journal wrote, “suggests that such high-profile examples (like the Seigenthaler and Curry situations) are the exception rather than the rule.”

        And to Wales, while Britannica came out looking a little bit more accurate than Wikipedia, the Nature study was validation of his service’s fundamental structure.

        “I was very pleased, just to see that (the study) was reasonably favorable,” Wales told CNET News.com. “I think it provides, for us, a great counterpoint to the press coverage we’ve gotten recently, because it puts the focus on the broader quality and not just one article.”

        He also acknowledged that the error rate for each encyclopedia was not insignificant, and added that he thinks such numbers demonstrate that broad review of encyclopedia articles is needed.

        He also said that the results belie the notion that Britannica is infallible.

        “I have very great respect for Britannica,” Wales said. But “I think there is a general view among a lot of people that it has no errors, like, ‘I read it in Britannica, it must be true.’ It’s good that people see that there are a lot of errors everywhere.”

        Read more: http://news.cnet.com/Study-Wikipedia-as-accurate-as-Britannica/2100-1038_3-5997332.html#ixzz0ywPsa4oT

        And fwiw, I know a couple of Wikipedia contributors — one on Kazakhstani history who’s getting his Ph.D. in the field, one a conoisseur of early Communist Chinese history — and they’re both very bright, well-informed people.

        But think for yourself, read the link, and draw your own conclusions.

  2. Hi Morgante,

    That’s why I like the following two quotes from Wikipedia in the post:

    Wikis, including Wikipedia and other wikis sponsored by the Wikimedia Foundation, are not regarded as reliable sources. However, wikis are excellent places to locate primary and secondary sources.

    And

    Wikipedia articles should be based on reliable secondary sources. This means that while primary or tertiary sources can be used to support specific statements, the bulk of the article should rely on secondary sources.

    Tertiary sources such as compendia, encyclopedias, textbooks, and other summarizing sources may be used to give overviews or summaries, but should not be used in place of secondary sources for detailed discussion.

    I don’t think any encyclopedia articles should be allowed in research papers, beyond the intro paragraph for background and context.

  3. Clay,
    First, I’ve missed seeing your picture in the tweet stream.Nice to see you posting.

    I tell my students to use Wikipedia as a diving board, a place to find primary sources. They shake their collective heads and whisper, “Well, Mr. Soandso says Wikipedia is terrible and should never be used and we’ll fail the paper if we do.”
    I’ll share with them your post to help them understand a little better how to use it.
    P.S. Do libraries even have new encyclopedias?
    Peace

    1. Thanks for the moral support, Paul. Trying to get back in the saddle.

      I get the same cognitive dissonance from students re: WP, so I’m glad WP itself weighs in here. It really is a useful resource for teaching literacy and source reliability.

      I don’t know about libraries, but laptops sure have a lot of encyclopedias.

      Happy New Year :)

  4. I rarely use wikipedia. Last time I used it was for an AP Biology definition, because all of our teachers refuse to accept Wikipedia as a valid source. While most of it IS NOT valid, the problem is it is hit or miss with its accuracy.

    I think that English curriculum (especially in America) doesn’t put enough emphasis on reliable sources, especially from the internet. A teacher of mine actually complained about some of the papers, because they used sources that were not legitimate. I don’t blame the teacher, because she barely had enough time to teach the basics of writing a research paper (yes, they teach it every year, even in the English 3 and AP Language class I took last year) and finishing up Macbeth.

    I refuse to use Wikipedia and encyclopedias for papers, because honestly they are kind of useless outside of straight facts, and most of the papers you write in English are analysis that you cannot find there.

    However, teachers now have the ability to create specialized search engines for specific topics that pull out “legitimate sources,” eliminating the work that the student has to do to find sources they can actually use.

  5. I find it interesting that the post is written without any discussion on the meaning of ‘reliability’ or ‘reliable’.

    I’m of the opinion that no bit of information – regardless of the source is value neutral. No matter how the information was generated or distributed, it carries with it a bias, slant, purpose, or agenda – however benign.

    The value of information – its ‘reliability’ – then, shifts from the source to the consumer. As the consumer of the information, I determine its reliability based on the context in which I use it.

    I don’t think we can generalize about the reliability of various sources. If i’m researching the history of plumbing, the sources I find reliable will be different than if I was researching how to stop a leak.
    .-= Bill Warrick´s last blog ..Hiatus =-.

    1. Bill, maybe I didn’t make myself clear enough: I’m talking about academic, formal research papers.

      I mentioned the “interesting caveats” in the post for lengthier discussions. It wasn’t the focus of this quick post.

      So I’m not bashing WP. I’m trying to save students from getting bashed in college for confusing it with peer-reviewed or otherwise authoritative sources.

      For what it is (and it’s many things), WP is a wonderful tool. But it shouldn’t be confused with what it’s not.

  6. Wikipedia is not reliable, and the information provided there is in majority of situations wrong. Also, it is not neutral when there are two different reliable sources for the same matter. Because of technicalities they accept just one, even though it is proven is the wrong one.
    Or they quote from one source, just enough for proving a certain point of view, omitting to quote the entire fragment that would change everything (they do not quote in the spirit of the author of the source)
    When it is possible this with verifiable sources, what can we expect from sources that we can not afford to buy.
    From my experience, they do not accept reference, quotes from books that are on the free domain, i.e. Archive sites, even though by indicating the place where anyone can verify information, it is much easier. With their type of site, I am forced either to buy a book or to buy their point of view made by it doesn’t matter who has a computer
    It appears for me, wikipedia is just a matter of business
    This is just my opinion.

    1. Obviously, people can go back and forth about the ‘reliability’ of wikipedia – on its own or in comparison with other sources.

      The point that I was trying to make is that we need to adjust our thinking about the nature of information (as opposed to facts).

      As a teacher, the students I work with don’t simply need ‘reliable facts’. I’m sorry, I know that’s sacrilege to many. What they need are the mental and technological tools necessary to gather, manipulate, assess, manage, and use the kind of information to which they’re exposed today – blogs, wikis, tweets, youtube videos. Wikipedia is one of those tools (one of MANY).

      As an information source, Wikipedia is invaluable. The idea of wikipedia is one of the most breathtaking shifts in the nature of knowledge acquisition and dissemination. Through Wikipedia, everyone in the world contributes to the knowledge base of everyone else in the world. We’re moving beyond the place where ‘experts’ are the sole sources of ‘reliable information’. I have information about my place here, the events and conditions around me, and from a viewpoint that no-one else in the world has. So do you… Gathering all of those viewpoints is a good thing.

      Wikipedia is current. Events of the world are almost instantaneously entered and written about. Videos and images are included. No other reference source can match that.

      We see this shift in traditional news. How many (primarily local) news organizations now solicit tweets and videos from viewers? How long before those first-hand accounts ARE the news? Not long, I think.

      True, wikipedia from a purely statistical point of view might not have everything right. But as a tool, it is indispensable. My students don’t need to have a book of facts, they need to understand how to make sense of the information they gather from all sources.
      .-= Bill Warrick´s last blog ..Hiatus =-.

      1. See my reply to your first comment above.

        The key point for this post is: It shouldn’t be mistaken for a reliable source in a formal academic research paper.

        As for the rest of your comment, it should be recognized for the many things it is, as you argue.

  7. Do you publish to wikipedia? You seem to know a lot of things, I feel, would make wikipedia at the very least more interesting. You may have covered this in your comments, but just stopping by shortly.

    1. Hi Forrest,

      Maybe not a bad idea, but I have to admit the idea of writing straight expository without “attitude” leaves me cold. Maybe I should assign students to?

      Thanks for dropping in, hope you’re well.

      B

  8. Most of my classmates submit their paper works coming from Wikipedia sources. I checked their work to the online source of Wikipedia and found out that the article needs a citation – that means it needs to be proven of reliable source. The thing here is, our Professor mark their paper work a passing grade without consulting the real source. How dumb.

  9. My goodness!!! You are fantastic! I am so happy I cam across this post. My students do not understand why Wikipedia is not reliable, no matter how many times I tell them. Thank you for this source. Your page looks very interesting. I am looking forward to reading some of your posts listed.

  10. You’ve written a very interesting post, and at this point I don’t disagree with you. I do think Wikipedia might be shown to be a reliable source at some point in the future though. Wikipedia is constantly improving it’s mechanisms for insuring reliability. You mentioned the Nature study in your comments above (BTW Joe Johnson might not be an entirely serious commenter). What if a similar study was done that showed Wikipedia to be as reliable or more reliable than “authoritative sources”? Wikipedia is probably already more reliable than peer reviewed journals, if not in facts than in interpretation. Peer reviewed journals are on the cutting edge of research and thus often innovative in there interpretations and thus often wrong. It seems counter-intuitive that Wikipedia could develop into a source that can be relied upon to the same degree as traditional sources but I already find it’s present success surprising.

  11. Wikipedia will NEVER be reliable until it allows public discourse a.k.a “comments” in it’s articles.

    While claiming to provide “truth” but silencing dissent is Fascism pure and simple.  Which makes it propaganda…

  12. As a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering who worked on the F-16, AV-8B, Space Shuttle, and many pieces of lesser hardware that no one has ever heard of, I can attest that, at least with regards to aerospace history and engineering in general, Wikipedia is laughably inaccurate and controlled (via reversion, etc.) by people who literally do not know what they are talking, er writing, about. I recall trying to correct one article about an NASA program with information obtained firsthand in an engineering briefing by the project’s manager only to have some Wiki-ite revert it with some nasty comment – I checked this guy’s wiki profile (or whatever its called) and found he described himself as an undergraduate pre-med student in France. Some of the photos in his little profile showed him at the air and space museum, so at least he’d been in the U.S. so  guess that made him an expert in the subject – I’ve only been working as an engineer in the industry for 30 years by comparison, taught continuing education courses to NASA engineers, etc. so obviously wasn’t up to his level of expertise. The quality of writing in Wiki articles is also humorous to the point where it unclear if the writer in some cases just doesn’t have a clue or just has such a poor command of English (almost invariably UK English, even in articles on American subjects) that he just doesn’t know how to let anyone know if he knows anything. Overall, Wiki comes off like a series of 9th grade term papers or class projects put together without the benefit of adult supervision.

    1. Wikipedia doesn’t accept first hand information.  Plain and simple.

      Honestly, that’s how they keep their information so accurate.  They source it.  Many things not sourced, whether true or not, will get deleted.  Now if you had really meant to contribute to the article, and your claim was valid, you should have been able to come up with some source backing up your claim.  Sorry to say but if someone made an edit to an article and claimed “I’ve worked in the field for 30 years” I’d be hesitant to add the information.

      BTW, I personally believe a majority of wikipedia could be used as a reliable resource, as long as you research a little bit.  Books can become outdated, and can also include biases, whether or not people like to admit it.  The internet is freely accessable to anyone, and wikipedia works hard to eliminate bias.  And as I said before, they cite where they get information from, so I could just as easily go to the cited article and include the exact same information I would have included as if I cited the Wikipedia article.

      No, I don’t believe you should just grab a little chunk of a wikipedia article and call it valid, just as I don’t believe you should go to a random site and take the information as valid.  You always need to check your sources with more sources.  But we’re living in an age when the older generation is hesitant to use a freely available, ever changing encyclopedia.  Luckily, my generation’s gonna be running things soon, and we’ll be able to use technology properly once we, the people who actually know how to use it, are in positions to implement it.
      :)

  13. Shouldn’t it really depend on the article? Wikipedia isn’t the only thing that could be unreliable, any web page could as well. Seems like kinda throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But if there is a good article with good cites to good sources, you are going to assume it’s bunk because it’s in Wikipedia?

    1. Not assuming it’s bunk. Assuming that any researcher who uses WP as a source is misguided because, to repeat, even WP itself says “do not use WP as a reliable source for academic research.”

      I’m a teacher. I’m preparing students for university, which includes research. I can’t teach them something that will result in failure in university or scholarship.

      Again, the best practice: using WP as a starting point is fine, because it typically is a respectable site. But because it’s publicly editable, it can only be used as a starting point–and it can’t show up as a source in a Works Cited or Bibliography.

  14. It was common knowledge a few years ago, circa 2005-2008 that Wikipedia is not a reliable source for information. People actually used to make fun of Wikipedia on all of the Social Networks such as Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Bebo, etc… These days, people are using it like it’s a Dictionary or an Almanac. People these days are seriously starting to worry me! What’s going to happen to these kids when they start turning in papers based on false information at school when your teacher/professor goes to a reliable source such the LIBRARY or a reliable website and finds that your paper is not accurate and you end up failing? It serves them right if you ask me for being so ignorant!

  15. Wow, congrats, you managed to horribly take out of context the policies about keeping Wikipedia accurate and twist them into saying why Wikipedia is inaccurate. Also, you misemphasised ‘weblogs’ — Wikipedia is not a blog, and as such, the emphasis is irrelevant.Everything you’ve emphasised is in place so Wikipedia can’t source itself. Learn to contextualise.

    Wikipedia is not perfect. Some of its articles are ruled with an iron fist by incompetent authors (like the one Interceptpubs mentioned). However, look at some of the featured articles, and the opposite is seen; high-quality articles by a miriad of authors working together. Wikipedia is inconsistent, and when using it, consider the quality of the article (located on the talk-page).

    1. Wow, congrats for being an ill-mannered boor who seems not to note that the purpose of this post is to confirm for students what Wikipedia itself says: “Do not use us as a source for research paper “Works Cited” or “Bibliography” pages.

      As for the rest, thanks for pointing out the obvious.

      1.  Wow, congrats for managing the not understand the point Peter has, refuting and rebutting the post. Double congrats for thinking that counter-points aren’t allowed. Good job.

  16. This is an excellent page you’ve created here. I have tried my best to convey to my students why they must not believe what Wikipedia tells them. I have even resorted to tackling example articles from it directly in front of the class, revealing the egregious errors, fiercely defended pet opinions, and despicable political propaganda found all over their “encyclopedia.”

    Wikipedia has become the number-one source of information, which I find absolutely terrifying, and I think that those in charge of the site are shirking the responsibility that should place on them to find a way to clean up the bias, lies, and stupidity absolutely riddling it. I guess the millions of dollars their leader is constantly begging from donors are instead going to spreading this source of information control and disinformation into as many places around the globe as possible.

    When a student references Wikipedia after seeing how faulty and sinister it is, I take off points—lots of them.

  17. I think it’s important to mention that you may not be entirely clear on what a reliable source would be in this context. Much like ID morons constantly putting undue emphasis on the “THEORY” element of evolution, lacking any idea of what a scientific theory is and instead leaning upon colloquial understanding of the word, in this case actual reliability is not determined by whether something is able to be listed as a reliable source within its own writing guide. Wikipedia is famously reliable, in fact many studies place it above traditional encyclopedias such as Britannica. Wikipedia does not consider itself a reliable source within it’s writing guidelines, just as any other encyclopedias would not call itself a reliable source to its own writers. Encyclopedias draw upon other sources to form coherent and exhaustive records of information and knowledge. If the writer of an encyclopedia or the editor of a wikipedia article could consider his own writing to be a reliable source simply by the merits of it appearing in the very publication he is contributing to, than both formats would be reliant upon faulty circular referencing, where one article is used as the basis for another. 

  18. Wikipedia is a piece of shoes that I can’t even stop laughing when I read some of those pages.  It sounded like a child wrote it or something.

  19. Step 1: Find the “edit” button on a page in Wikipedia that you would like to correct.
    Step 2: Edit said page so it is correct.
    Step 3: OH MY GOD! IT’S NOW CORRECT!!!!
    Step 4: Destroy this blog.

    Don’t complain, do.

  20. Hi Clay  -
    Interesting post and also, very interesting comments.  I find the more technical replies most telling, for example Interceptpubs who found WP was  “…controlled (via reversion, etc.) by people who literally do not know what they are talking, er writing, about.”

    I’ve documented my experiences with WP admin at some lowish levels here:

    http://tinyurl.com/czt9ryr

    and here

    http://tinyurl.com/bmqvgzv

    I especially sympathise with Physics Guy, when he says: “Wikipedia has become the number-one source of information, which I find
    absolutely terrifying, and I think that those in charge of the site are
    shirking the responsibility that should place on them to find a way to
    clean up the bias, lies, and stupidity absolutely riddling it.”

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