We all know the benefits and disadvantages of Wikipedia. It’s a good place to cull information and familiarize yourself with a subject, but your research should likely extend beyond the confines of the drab black and white online encyclopedia. At least, that’s what teachers and professionals will tell you time and time again. But, is that a correct line of thinking? Is there ever a time in which citing a Wikipedia article is accepted or allowed?
Using Wikipedia in a Professional Setting
If you are a professional writer (a columnist or a blogger) and you want to look up facts, then Wikipedia is the ideal starting place. For instance, if you’re writing an op-ed about the Middle East, then you should probably familiarize yourself with the context. Wikipedia is often the best place to do that, but you should also branch out from there. Most Wikipedia articles are filled with reliable links and sources that can take you to pages that will provide more insight and better information. In most cases, professional writers (and especially journalists) will not cite Wikipedia directly, but they may use Wikipedia as a jumping off point for their research.
Of course, it really depends on the writer. Thomas Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times recently came under fire for citing directly from the Wikipedia article for Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, an Egyptian general. Another Times columnist, Bill Keller, frequently uses the open-source platform in his op-ed pieces. Obviously, citing Wikipedia is still taboo and both Keller and Friedman have received criticism for using it, but, if you can get away with it, then who’s going to stop you?
The information presented in Wikipedia is often reliable enough, even if most Wikipedia opponents would rather you cite the sources and links and not the Wikipedia page itself. For columnists who do not have to worry about job security, Wikipedia works just fine.
Using Wikipedia in an Academic Setting
If you’re a student, then you are probably more familiar with Wikipedia than most other people. Students from middle school all the way up to PhD programs use Wikipedia for their research on an impossibly wide variety of topics. But, most, if not all of these students have encountered a teacher or professor who has strictly forbidden the use of Wikipedia as a primary source.
In most college courses, citing Wikipedia would probably be grounds for immediate failure. Some teachers and professors will let you get away with a Wikipedia citation for smaller assignments, but larger essays will frequently require the use of a more reliable source.
That’s not to say that the information on Wikipedia is wholly unreliable. In fact, a lot of it is accurate and written in an understandable way. But, the fact that the website can be edited by anyone at any time is certainly a powerful deterrent for its full acceptance in the academic world. Educators want their students to understand the topics they are studying, and that frequently means they have to delve deeper into the subject beyond a surface reading of a Wikipedia page.
To put it simply, if the information in a Wikipedia article is properly sourced, then you should go to the source and cite the information from there. If the information in the Wikipedia article is not properly sourced, then you shouldn’t trust it. This rule works for both professional and academic settings unless, of course, you can get away with quoting Wikipedia.
Author Ronald Simms is a former professor and retired columnist from Okaloosa County, Florida. In addition to editing Wikipedia, he is a regular contributor to numerous online publications.