How do you cite Wikipedia?

12Jun08

My twleve year old brother was working on paper for his sixth grade history class and called me to ask: “How do you cite Wikipedia?” My first reaction was simple, you don’t. Teachers, college professors and some others do not approve of their students using such an untrustworthy source of information, so you don’t cite it.

Instead, you use the information found within it, look at the article’s list of sources, follow the links to those sources and cite them as your own. In this way, you end up with a beautiful works cited or bibliography page that shows that all you information came from reliable sources. But, since your original source was Wikipedia, shouldn’t it be on it, too?

If Wikipedia provides reliable sources of information wouldn’t it too be a reliable source? Personally, I think teachers and professors should reconsider their thoughts on Wikipedia. It is a great source of information. It’s free, it’s easy to use and it’s the first familiar site to show up when you google something. It should be an accepted citable source.



3 Responses to “How do you cite Wikipedia?”

  1. Wikipedia can be a really useful source of information. I used it to get an overview of Montreal’s history before a recent trip there, and I use it all the time to get music genres when I want to customize tags in my iTunes library. (Sorry, iTunes… “Alternative” just isn’t specific enough when I want to tag things as post-rock or slowcore.)

    Recently, my sweetie IMed me with a link to the Wikipedia entry for Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve. I went to the page, and noticed an interesting — and somewhat anti-Semitic — term, and sent it back to him. Funny thing is, he didn’t see it. It wasn’t on his version of the page. The page had been changed in the brief moment between the time he IMed me and I clicked on the link.

    I went and looked at the “discussion” page for the article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Ben_Bernanke. (Definitely check out the discussion page any time you’re looking at Wikipedia. Fascinating reading.)

    So, what happens if you use a quote from Wikipedia and cite it, and when your teacher or prof goes to check it, and it’s not there? You might stand accused of plagiarism or fabrication.

    Professors and teachers generally dislike it because it can be edited by anyone. I can edit it (and I have), you can edit it (and if you haven’t, you should!), and your twelve year old brother can edit it.

    There’s supposedly quality control thanks to the masses, but how do you know the masses are (or the last person to edit the page is) smarter than your twelve year old brother? Do you think what your twelve year old brother writes is a good source for a college level paper..?

    In any case, check out what Wikipedia itself says about researching with Wikipedia. Of course, you should evaluate any source of information before you blindly accept what it says…

  2. It’s unfortunate that you can’t cite Wikipedia, but I believe that citing the sources that a Wikipedia article cites — if you actually check them out a bit — will lead to a better paper.

    To counteract the situation that your teacher would find a different text than your original: You can just mention in your paper the time you accessed the page and he can find the exact version you saw in the History tab of the article. Also you should check out the History tab if you want to reuse content from Wikipedia, and see if the content of the article is stable. If you see rapid changes or angry edit summaries, you should be careful, if the article seems calm or there’s no quarrelling on the talk page the content should be as accurate as any page on the Internet (or even any article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica for that matter).

    You can find an explanation of the different parts of the History page here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:Page_history : when on an actual history page its very useful to get a feeling of what’s changing on the page by randomly using the links marked 4 and 5 in the explanatory illustration.

  3. I don’t think that Academia (Higher education or not) will ever really accept that something put together by mere mortals (not them) will ever be something that is worthwhile as a resource.

    I use Wikipedia the same way you suggest above. However, I disagree with your assertion that good sources = good wikipedia. All people have biases, agendas, some sort of internal slant. You and I could read the same article and have COMPLETELY different responses.

    Those sorts of slants and discrimination is what makes wikipedia dangerous as a hard source. Fortunately, one can use it as a tool, or just another data point and not fall victim to any major issues.



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