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October 02, 2007

Should scholars rely on Wikipedia?

As soon as Wikipedia achieved much critical mass, students began citing to it, and professionals and other writers have followed suit. Should research scholars rely on Wikipedia?

Neil Waters, a professor in the Department of History at Middlebury College, thinks that Wikipedia is a good place to get ideas, to get an initial introduction to a topic, or to get leads on references to pursue. He thinks students and scholars should not rely on it, however (that is, in scholarly currency, should not cite to it as a reliable source). He has published a short, cogent essay presenting his argument in the Communications of the ACM.

I agree with Waters. Indeed, Wikipedia agrees with Waters. This is not an attack on Wikipedia: it is a long-standing and general principle about not relying on (or citing to) tertiary sources in scholarly research, which includes all encyclopedias (even the venerable Britannica). The problems posed by Wikipedia are special, and of special concern, especially for less popular topics, but the principle is general.

One of Wikipedia's principles is "no original research", and all fact assertions are supposed to be documented by citations to primary or secondary sources. The latter guideline is followed only partially, but it is one of the quite useful features of Wikipedia for scholars: get an introduction to a topic, and then start following the references to more reliable source material.

Posted by jmm at October 2, 2007 08:50 AM

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