The Penalty for Citing Wikipedia

The Penalty for Citing Wikipedia May 23, 2013

John Anderson shared on Facebook the wonderful threat he makes to students if they should dare to cite Wikipedia in an assignment.

He said he tells them he will change the Wikipedia article, penalize them for citing Wikipedia, and then penalize them again for not citing it accurately!

The point he is trying to get across, of course, is that Wikipedia can be written and changed by anyone. The combination of its instability and the fact that one has no way of knowing whether at a given moment it was written wholly or primarily by experts in the area in question makes it unwise to use, except as a stepping stone to actual scholarly sources.

I do not have a problem with students using Wikipedia in the manner I just indicated, i.e. to lead them to other sources. The problem is in relying on someone else to mediate actual content and information to you from experts. Now that so many sources which reflect genuine expertise are available online, there is simply no reason to be relying on non-experts to read the experts for you and tell you what they say, if you are trying to really understand a topic.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Well I’m mad because someone has changed my Wikipedia Bio and this week, I’m a country/western singer from Texas.

  • TomS

    I wonder about the ethics of changing Wikipedia for such a reason.

  • I thought that one could virtually guarantee that any Wikipedia article about a Biblical subject had a devoted conservative evangelical editor, and should therefore be read to mean (1) that any scholar whose work is mysteriously shrouded in weasel words is going to be more-or-less right, (2) any dates given should be assumed to have been fiddled to fit doctrinal preconceptions, and (3) where equal weight is given to a vast list of evangelical scholars and another position, the other position is the consensus.

  • David S.

    I’m tired of teachers acting like vandals. Just because you can vandalize something, doesn’t mean you have the moral right to vandalize something.

    Note that something you can do when citing Wikipedia that can’t do when citing most websites is cite an immutable version. There’s a lot of websites out there with a lot of BS, and it’s not always trivial to tell what’s authoritative and what’s nonsense. Moreover, experts are frequently problematic; even after you filter out the David Bartons of the world, experts frequently give you their view of the world as received truth, whereas Wikipedia usually does better at giving you multiple sides of the story.

    • San

      If anyone can edit Wikipedia, then there is no ability to say it is vandalism. Vandalism is a legal term, and you are committing libel by accusing people of vandalism. The owners of Wikipedia do not express any desire to directly control their content, so they are not legally able to accuse anyone of vandalizing their site. Therefore, you need to stop throwing the term around or you could be in serious legal jeopardy.

    • “Cite an immutable version”? Could you please cite the immutable version of the Wikipedia article about Carolyn Doran, as it appeared on December 23, 2007? Could you please cite the immutable version of the Wikimedia Meta project page here: No, you cannot. The people who control Wikipedia and its related projects are determining what pages you and I are allowed to see, and which pages we are not allowed to see. So, please, stop with the mythology, David S.

      • David S.

        I think Carolyn Doran is off-topic for John Anderson’s class. Yes, a few revisions are deleted for privacy or libel reasons, but that hardly seems relevant to the discussion here, nor does some Wikimedia-internal controversy.

        • San

          David S., you tried to defend Wikipedia and, when its obvious errors are pointed out, you resort to the traditional “look over there” bit. You are a predictable troll.

  • Ian

    I agree with other commenters, my first thought on this was that John Anderson is behaving like a thug.

    And I’m not really sure why Wikipedia gets special criticism here. When I was studying it was made clear to us not to cite encyclopaediae unless the point of the citation was particularly about the encyclopaedia’s approach to its content. And the same to a lesser extent with any secondary source, unless the point of the citation or the whole argument was the use of the primary material by the secondary author. So I don’t get picking on Wikipedia for that. Citing the Encyclopaedia Britannica in an essay would be an equal mark of naivete surely?

    I do see encyclopedia citations rarely in academic work, but they tend to be either the most general background building (for which a Wikipedia citation is just as good, I’d say), or they are citations of very specific encyclopedia, usually by a named author (e.g. “X develops this idea more fully in his 1956 Y Encyclopedia Entry”).

    It is always surprising how much FUD is generated about Wikipedia, and the lengths to which people will go to bolster their dislike of it: even to the point of threatening to vandalize it.

    • Well, it was my assumption that (1) John probably doesn’t actually do this, but makes the threat half jokingly to make the point, and (2) if he were to change Wikipedia in this manner, he would do so, take a screenshot, and then revert it. Most scholars I know of who care about information literacy are more likely to try to improve Wikipedia than to vandalize it.

      The point is precisely that, for specialist answers, one ought to be turning to the kinds of specialist reference works where one can identify the author. If one thinks of the entries in a work like the Anchor Bible Dictionary, they are precisely an expert in a given area’s attempt to condense the state of scholarship on the topic. They give you all sides, even if they make the case for a particular viewpoint. Presenting all the relevant evidence and the history of scholarship before making your own case is standard procedure. And it is precisely because online sources are liable either to offer apologetics disguised as scholarship, or a presentation of “all sides” even when experts do not consider all sides to be equal, that I think that turning to sources written by scholars to be the only legitimate place to start research.

      • Eric

        Exactly. Using Wikipedia as a primary source of information is a lazy shortcut to get out of doing real research. I’m not saying Wikipedia is bad, because it offers a valuable trove of information, albeit one that tends to be condensed. Due to the potential for non-scholarly or biased data, information from Wikipedia should be taken with a grain of salt. Wikipedia can be useful, however, in providing links to reports and supporting documentation that may otherwise be more difficult to discover. Of course, these documents should be carefully evaluated before one cites them as established fact.

        • Ian

          I wonder if it is just the changing times. When I was at uni, using any encyclopedia was considered a lazy shortcut out of doing real research.

      • Ian

        Okay, that’s a slightly different spin, which makes more sense.

        I’m still not sure what you’re advocating though. Wikipedia is fine to get your first overview of a topic. I use it as a first dip regularly on highly technical topics. But you want to go to a decent scholarly reference resource to build up a hit list of resources pretty quickly, I agree. But you’re surely not suggesting that a student can turn in a paper arguing their case based on what they’ve learned from the Anchor Bible Dictionary? And so I still am a little confused why Wikipedia gets special treatment.

      • San

        “Most scholars I know of who care about information literacy are more likely to try to improve Wikipedia than to vandalize it.” I call bs. I know hundreds of scholars, ad most of them would never edit Wikipedia and most laugh at the idea of Wikipedia. Scholars resent that amateurs who know nothing have power over experts.

        • Well, indeed, that is probably true of most of us – most scholars would neither contribute nor vandalize. But my point was that some of us, knowing that people turn to sources like Wikipedia, and caring about what information is presented in such sources, would, if we did anything at all to a Wikipedia entry, it would be to correct it, not try to make it less accurate.

          • San

            James, if you don’t know me, I was one of Wikipedia’s top content editors. I have more high quality edits in a true academic field than most people. I think you are a tad naive to suggest that academics would actually want to correct Wikipedia because it is utterly impossible, especially with all the games and corruption there. It is the equivalent of scholars going down to a gang headquarters and trying to get them to go straight. It just doesn’t happen, no matter how hippy dippy liberal everything is wonderful some people pretend to be.

  • John Anderson

    Wow James, fun crowd here. “A thug”? Unethical? Perhaps this is all symptomatic of not being able to sense tone, and thus humor, over the internet. Or perhaps they know I teach OT and this was read in that “legalistic” or “horrifying OT God” type of way (yes, I’m jesting, and hopefully that sets a more appropriate tone for what follows. Perhaps you should’ve linked to my blog, even though it has been a while since I updated it, to provide a bit more context, James).

    James’ final comment below is accurate. Have I ever done it? No. Would I ever do it? Probably not. Haven’t been put in a situation to do so. And WHY haven’t I been put in a situation to have to do so? Because of this comment. Because I’m up front with the students on day one about it. And yes, I say it in jest, and it always gets a laugh. Perhaps knowing me and my personality helps set the context a bit here. But it is no different than me saying “if I see you texting during class your final course grade will drop an entire letter grade.” Have I ever had to do it? No. Why? Because I’ve laid the expectation out that we are here to LEARN, and anything that interferes with that objective is detrimental to the students and distracting to me. I actually have students come up to me before class telling me they have a sick child or some other issue and need to attend to their phone. That’s perfectly fine. It teaches them to be mindful and accommodating of such issues.

    Back to Wikipedia. It is, quite simply, not to be trusted because the author is unknown. Yes, the content may be good, but there is no way a novice in the field is going to be able to adjudicate between what is accurate and not, especially when no author is cited. And yes, this is true of books as well; some scholars can and have written garbage. But at least there a) I can help guide them to reputable publishers, etc. if they so desire; b) they are turning to a name that someone has deemed authoritative enough to publish a book, rather than anyone with a computer and 30 minutes to kill in editing a Wiki page. Plus, it hs the added fringe benefit of getting them to the library, exposing them to knowledge. There are far worse places they could be!

    So in short, lighten up folks. It’s meant in the interest of getting students into the real meat of the resources. The internet has helped–and hindered–so much of what constitutes “research” and “study” these days. Part of the task of education is figuring out how to adjudicate what is and isn’t an appropriate resource (surely a subjective matter!). But that’s the task I’m pushing them towards. If having a creative sense of humor makes me an unethical thug, all I can say is I’ve been called worse.

    • David S.

      Why is a joke about destroying someone else’s hard work funny? Do you think construction workers dealing with petty arson on a regular basis find jokes about starting a fire in their building funny? People are trying to build something, and other people are trying to tear down; I don’t see why we should find it funny that you’re joking about tearing it down.

      • John Anderson

        First, I’d challenge the fairness of the assumption that someone has worked “hard” on Wikipedia. But that point aside, I’d also question the aptness of your analogy to what I’m doing as arson. There is no destruction of anyone’s work. It has never happened. It simply illustrates the point that a) we don’t know who wrote the entry; b) anyone can change the entry to say anything; c) ergo, Wikipedia is not a reliable academic source. It’s meant to communicate a point, not exist as a legitimate threat.

        You clearly didn’t read what I wrote above. I’d suggest you revisit my comments above, and when the conversation is interested in becoming less antagonistic and more thoughtful, honest, and edifying, I’ll be glad to partake.

        If a simple joke that proves the point makes me an arsonist, then Stephen Colbert’s treatment of Wikipedia should land him in jail or on death row.

        Have fun, James!

        • David S.

          You didn’t read what I wrote. There are people who vandalize Wikipedia everyday; therefore, your joke about the matter isn’t funny. There is in fact destruction of people’s work, every day, on an ongoing basis. Your joke about doing so contributes to the environment that makes that okay.

          I think when there has been two billion words written for a work, the presumption of hard work is on the side of the authors of those two billion words.

          • I have to object on several grounds. First, making a joke about altering Wikipedia, which can be easily reverted to its form prior to the change, is not the same as burning down a house which has no such revert feature. Second, while some people may have put significant effort into some Wikipedia entries, many of them show evidence of a lack of serious effort, care for clear expression, and much else. Third, the very fact that one can compare the minutes or hours that most people have put into their activity on Wikipedia with the years and decades that scholars put into their work is insulting and indicative of the problem that scholars like John and myself have with Wikipedia. Its usefulness for certain purposes is not in dispute – it is the suggestion that it offers something comparable to consulting the writing of an expert in the field in question that is the issue. And so I do not find the hyperbole about Wikipedia, while engaging in denigration of the hard work of scholars in the process, to be at all appropriate, much less persuasive.

          • David S.

            Reversion is not free; people spend a lot of time watching many articles, and checking every edit. If you wish, instead of arson, we can use tagging a wall, which can be trivially reverted with a little hard work.

            I didn’t compare the time on Wikipedia with the time that scholars put into their work; I merely said that “First, I’d challenge the fairness of the assumption that someone has worked “hard” on Wikipedia” is unfair. To say that someone worked hard on something is not saying much, which makes the refusal to acknowledge that all the more insulting.

            I see way more hyperbole and denigration coming from your side. I do not denigrate the work of scholars. What I do criticize is the idea that scholars are always even-handed about their analyses of their fields, and that it’s easy to separate out the non-scholars from the scholars. I do not believe that there are many sources on the Internet that reflect genuine expertise, as you claim, that are readable to the non-scholar and easily verifiable as being scholarly.

          • Ian

            I second the comment about reversion not being free. Particularly when reversions and edits collide it can take *hours* to undo the damage to an article. On pages that have seen extensive discussion and fine tuning of terms and phrasing, subtle vandalism can be even worse, kicking off days of deliberation.

            The only reason that this ‘cheap reversion’ meme has got a hold is that so many hundreds of people put so much time into keeping the resource up, running and safe. And its pretty insulting to pretend that their effort isn’t hard work.

            Its pretty cheap to pick up a single piece of trash from the sidewalk, but throwing your soda cup on the ground is still antisocial.

          • Well, I still do not think that a joke about this is comparable to a joke about arson. And I say this as someone who has contributed to Wikipedia, but has never constructed a building.

          • Ian

            I agree, but so does David, it seems. Hence the throwing down trash or graffiti analogies.

          • San

            “people spend a lot of time watching many articles, and checking every edit” Mostly so they can gain points with other children and get promoted to admin status, which they heavily abuse to boost their own egos. What is your point, except that you have no clue about what really goes on over there?

      • San

        “Why is a joke about destroying someone else’s hard work funny?” 12 year old boys putting up grammatically incorrect nonsense cannot be considered hard work.

        • David S.

          Now who’s talking libel? Nature 438, 900-901 (15 December 2005) put Wikipedia about on par with the Encyclopaedia Britannica, not grammatically incorrect nonsense.

          • San

            That Nature article was extremely flawed and everyone knows it. Furthermore, Encyclopedia Britannica is not a very credible source to begin with. And libel? Obviously, you’ve never been to Wikipedia or you would realize that the vast majority of editors are minors and the vast majority have no ability to put forth anything comprehensive or readable.

          • David S.

            And there’s scholarship for you, dismissing a peer-reviewed article with “everyone knows” and pulling numbers out of your ass as if they were fact. There is a self-selected survey that says that about 25% of the editors of Wikipedia are below 18 (and no, that’s not the vast majority.) If you expect your numbers to be accepted as more reliable, you should put forth some evidence.

          • San

            Peer reviewed? Really? In -Nature-? They aren’t an expert on encyclopedias. Did you even read the story? It was debunked. Your citation of it is pure trolling. Even they admitted that there were a lot of objections. Do you know how many pages from Wikipedia have major grammatical errors? Do you know how few Britannica had? Then there is this: “We chose fifty entries from the websites of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica on subjects that represented a broad range of scientific disciplines.” A -random- selection of Wikipedia articles would have provide some of the worst articles. Instead, they picked onto the -best-, which is not even a representative sample! Obviously, it was not scientific. You are a liar or a fool because you mislead people about what the document you cited even says! I hope you don’t ever want to pursue a career in academia because you would be quickly exposed.

          • San

            This is the best doozie: ”
            In doing so, we sometimes disregarded items that our reviewers had identified as errors or critical omissions. In particular, as we were interested in testing the entries from the point of view of ‘typical encyclopaedia users’, we felt that experts in the field might sometimes cite omissions as critical when in fact they probably weren’t – at least for a general understanding of the topic. Likewise, the ‘errors’ identified sometimes strayed into merely being badly phrased – so we ignored these unless they significantly hindered understanding.”

            This is an admittance that there were A LOT of errors in Wikipedia. I have exposed 1000s of articles in Wikipedia that were plagiarized, that were fraudulent, that misstated what sources said, etc. It is obvious to anyone with any kind of academic background that the “study” was a joke.

          • San

            From the Nature study people: ”

            The company also asked for the full copies of
            the reviewers’ reports. We declined to
            send these. The reports were written for us,
            and reviewers did not expect them to be
            forwarded to the organization that they
            were commenting on. In some cases, the
            review also revealed the identity of the reviewer.” That is NOT PEER REVIEW. Peer review allows everyone access to the information and does not hide it like that. This is them covering their asses on making a really misleading article.

    • David S.

      Also “they are turning to a name that someone has deemed authoritative enough to publish a book” is absurd. Vanity publishing has been around a long time and religious publishing is filled with publishers with no respect for scholarly consensus. I have a number of books that have nonsense that would never float for any period of time on Wikipedia. The Awful Library Book blog is constantly bringing up books from high school libraries, like ones on the Soviet Union that are too old to mention Sputnik. Why don’t you make jokes about damaging those books if your students dare use them?

    • Ian

      Its all in the telling John – lacking the context, James’s post made you sound like one of the hoards of people who seem to take great delight in destroying or denigrating the incredible effort that has gone into the Wikipedia, and the promise it provides for human knowledge. Let’s not forget, it is the single largest reference work in human history, and is free, unlike your courses and your school library. And is not, by and large, written by scholars because (with some very notable exceptions) many scholars prefer to spend time deriding it rather than improving and engaging with it. How many key articles in your subject area do you get email notifications of edits for, so you can help monitor and contribute to their quality?

      It is easy to sound rather dismissive, from what I can see. And making it clear you regularly base teaching points on threats and power games (“if I see you texting during class your final course grade will drop an entire letter grade.”) doesn’t rescue you much, to be frank. The fact that your students appreciate the humour strikes me as equally worrying.

      Wikipedia has genuine haters, who do genuine damage, not just to people’s work, but to the world’s access to knowledge and information. Despite what it is, what it represents, and what it has achieved, it is depressingly fashionable to deride it.

      So maybe people could read your tone better and lighten up. But it still doesn’t seem particularly funny to me.

      • San

        “who seem to take great delight in destroying or denigrating the incredible effort” Are you high? Because there is no way a sober person could make such a ridiculous comment as that.

        • Ian

          Normally it is better to explain your actual disagreement. You know, if your aim is to actually discuss something rather than to inflate your own ego at another’s expense.

          Its also telling that the google trail of your antics on Wikipedia led to. “Jeffrey Peters has been a huge dick on wikimedia projects for years.”, “It still wouldn’t tell you much about Wikipedia, because he’s really only an example of himself.”, “I guess he’s someone who’s butthurt after being thrown off the site”, etc, and as Ottava the ubquitous name calling, ad-homs, antagonism, derision and Wikipedia banning for the above, could fill hours. Pardon me for not taking you terribly seriously on this. Chips and shoulders and all that.

          Nice blanket down voting too, btw.

          • San

            My disagreement is that you are randomly choosing words and throwing them down while pretending that they are truth. You can’t just make stuff up then whine about people calling you on it.

          • Ian

            Yeah, you’re right, my words were totally random. And you were totally right, and that long litany of warnings and sanctions, removal of privileges and banning, they were totally because you were one of the 0.0001% of Wikipedians that had the ability to create a decent page. Thanks for clearing up my mistake.

          • San

            Oh, and Ian, if you want to criticize my Wikipedia history, you only prove that you have nothing to contribute. After all, I created some of the best pages out there and am an expert in what makes Wikipedia a failure. The fact that those, like myself, who were the rare few that had expertise and could create decent pages are outnumbered by the 99.9999% that do not have the ability to create such things shows that Wikipedia will always suck.

          • David S.

            You were banned from Wikipedia. That is a strike against your neutrality, but not a fatal one. But that you should try so hard and incessantly to get back on Wikipedia, that you continued to participate in the Simple Wikipedia and on Wikimedia Commons (despite them having blocked you for an extended period of time), that makes your statements here look like hard-core sour grapes instead of serious analysis.

          • San

            Many, many, many experts were banned from Wikipedia. That is not a strike against my neutrally but proof that Wikipedia is anti-academia and anti-factuality. The fact that you are stating so much information that only an active member of Wikipedia would know without revealing who you are shows that you are here to troll and disrupt.

  • rageahol

    how, exactly, would you react if they cited the article properly, using the revision number that is linked in the sidebar (under “Cite this page”, oddly enough)?

    • The problem is what Wikipedia is, and not just that it is constantly changing. Anyone may have written parts of it, and usually they are not scholars. If anything in a Wikipedia article is correct, it will be because it derives from other sources. Students (and anyone else) ought to be going to those sources directly. They can find them with the help of Wikipedia, but they cannot afford to simply trust one or more anonymous individuals to mediate the information to them.

      • rageahol

        1. you didn’t actually answer the question
        2. at least in theory, everything in wikipedia derives from other sources — it’s a core policy, actually
        3. how is trusting a possibly-anonymous article (that everyone keeps telling you you have to verify) any different than trusting the results of a search engine or taking a random website at its word that e.g. treatment X cures condition Y?

        • I answered the question before you asked it, and then answered it again. Use of Wikipedia as a source in an academic assignment is inappropriate. It isn’t just the citation method that is the issue.

          It is not different from trusting other anonymous sources, which is why students are penalized for use of any inappropriate sources, not just Wikipedia.

      • David S.

        There are some scholars working on Wikipedia; for example, one of handful of people who regularly work on the hurricane articles works for the National Hurricane Center. It is exactly as much a derivative work as the Anchor Bible Dictionary; they are both summaries of work already published. Your students probably recognize some of the editors working on the Wikipedia articles better then authors working on Anchor Bible Dictionary. What it comes down is not that the Anchor Bible Dictionary has names signed to it, but that they trust the publisher and your recommendation.

        Which is really my problem here, not that teachers don’t accept Wikipedia as a source. Most of the serious problems with Wikipedia are backed up by sources. James Dowden above complains about evangelical biases; every article with that problem can be backed up as is by a number of non-anonymous, non-vanity volumes. Some of your non-public-schooled students probably had textbooks that treated those evangelical biases as facts to be tested on. Any amount of bad information can be found in books, authors uncritically repeating made-up information, willfully misciting works, editing things to fit a preconceived narrative, radically controversial or widely dismissed opinions presented as accepted truth, simply outdated information, etc.* Even peer-reviewed journal articles are frequently ripped to shreds; the professors of linguistics at the Language Log would like the journal Science to stop publishing such lousy articles on linguistics**, for example, and even good articles can come to pieces after other scholars poke at it and do their own examinations. Dismissing Wikipedia without dismissing a lot of books and other sources is unfair and unhelpful, but dismissing those books takes more then just handwaves about anonymous individuals or sometimes even non-scholar authors. Again, I’m seriously skeptical about there being “so many sources which reflect genuine expertise are available online”, at least those who can used without deep understanding; who is this author? When he says associated with Brigham Young University or Oral Roberts University, in what way? Are those good universities to be associated with? Is Philosophy Study from David Publishing a reputable peer-reviewed journal like they claim? These are hard questions, and I fear it’s easy to go from Wikipedia to less reliable sources.

        * The New York Times and Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography both have the honor of being printed sources of information that was completely made up, with non-anonymous sources.


        • San

          The Hurricane articles are a good example of the problem – most are filled with plagiarism or just taking whole sale details without any real notability behind it. There is so little meat that they go into very unethical areas. I reviewed dozens of those pages, and all had problems. If I was the National Hurricane Center, I would be very nervous about have any staff connected to such a problematic area.

        • San

 This guy use to dominate the hurricane articles. He committed major academic errors, put forth tons of pages with little content except that scrapped off government websites, and used multiple sock puppets to chase away people who pointed out his problems. This is the norm, not the exception.

  • Of related interest, someone e-mailed me this article yesterday, about biased editors of Wikipedia:

  • themfromspace

    With the zeal that the author is defending this professor I knew that something fishy was up. A google search shows that these people appear to be on friendly terms and have interacted numerous times before this post was written. In fact, James F. McGrath has stumped for the professor several times before on this very site. In light of this, this post is clearly just a plug for the professor.

    What journalistic integrity!

    • Umm, what? Who is “this professor” in your comment – are you referring to John? If so, why avoid his name? That I am on friendly terms with John Anderson is not news and is implicit in the reference to our Facebook interaction. What do you mean by “stumped” and who is suppsedly a journalist here? I have no idea what you are talking about – could you be so kind as to clarify?

  • Mark Schierbecker

    Keyword: change, not vandalize.

  • Sterling Ericsson

    And if Mr. Anderson does try to do so to any Wikipedia pages, it will be quite fun to get his IP address blocked for vandalism.

    Of course, if his students reference Wikipedia in a manner that is to a permanent page difference (which can be looked at for each edit in the history tab), then him editing the article won’t change their citation, as they would be citing a specific version of the page with specific information.

    Regardless, they shouldn’t be citing an encyclopedia as it is, which is what their teacher should actually be emphasizing.