Scholars Behaving Badly – Er, I Mean, Citing Wikipedia

Scholars Behaving Badly – Er, I Mean, Citing Wikipedia June 6, 2013

I've been discussing information literacy in general and Wikipedia in particular not only here, but on Facebook, quite a bit in recent days. One discussion asked about the appropriateness of a scholar citing a Wikipedia article, if only to offer it as a brief introduction to a topic. The question was posed by Joseph Kelly on Facebook:

So I’m reading a volume from the LHBOTS, and the second article in it cites a Wikipedia page to orient readers to the general discussion of the topic (meta-ethics). I’ve also seen this author do this in his 2012 book published by SBL.Any opinions out there about this?

Chris Heard mentioned this on his blog, and I agree with his viewpoint. Here is a quote from his post, which I recommend clicking through and reading in its entirety:

My own, semi-informed opinion—and that’s all that Joseph asked for, not a research essay—is that scholarly authors pointing scholarly readers to Wikipedia is somewhat ill-advised. At the emotional level, scholarly authors who do this risk damaging their implicit relationships with those readers; they risk violating the implied social contract that requires authors to assume competence among peer readers. In my view, authors contributing (to) LHBOTS volumes should be able to assume sufficient levels of readerly competence to refer to signed, scholarly overviews of necessary topics instead. As a reader, I would almost feel insulted if I were sent to a Wikipedia article rather than a scholarly article.

One issue with Wikipedia is its potential to change, although one can link to a particular version of the page and bypass that. And that perhaps leads to the broader question, of whether the issue is the potential of wikis to change, or the multiple and anonymous authorship, or the nature of online materials more generally.

If I wrote an introduction to a topic, posted it on or my SelectedWorks page, and mentioned it in a footnote, I suspect that most younger scholars would not see anything objectionable.

So what then if I were to edit the Wikipedia page on the same topic, making it really accurate and polished, and then linked to a fixed version of it? Would that be fundamentally different (assuming that I indicated that that was what I had done)?

What if I had the same introduction to a topic as I mentioned earlier, but instead of posting it on or in a university repository, I posted it on my blog?

The fact that something is in a printed source does not, in and of itself, vouchsafe its reliability. Having it printed in a scholarly journal would indicate quality, but a broad introduction to a topic would not get published in such a setting. A textbook would be more the appropriate venue, but we have all had the experience of wishing that a textbook offered a better treatment of this or that, without having the time to write and publish our own. And so posting one's own introduction to a topic, if one is not entirely satisfied with the treatment in existing textbooks, on some web space, is something that many of us have done. The question is what the appropriate location and etiquette is for doing so.

As with Mark Goodacre's experience of having his blog post discussed in a peer-reviewed article, the internet is changing how we do things. And so the existing assumptions about where scholarship can be found will not suffice. And so the first step is to discuss these topics, and we've begun to do that here and on other blogs, as well as at conferences – that fact in itself illustrating the changing way scholarly discussions occur. I invite you to continue the discussion here!


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  • I do not allow my students to cite Wikipedia in their papers (undergrad research papers), so I am not sure I would “respect” a wikipedia citation in a scholarly article. The author ought to cite a standard “handbook” or primer on the topic (probably in the footnotes of the Wiki anyway) rather than the ephemeral web based source.

    On the other hand, when I do run across a topic I am fuzzy on (such as meta-ethics, obscure historical references, etc.) I often run to wikipedia for a quick overview of the topic. I do tell students that wikipedia is not a bad place to start a paper, but a terrible place to finish – get a little orientation then head to better sources.

    • Sterling Ericsson

      And that’s exactly what Wikipedia advises that people do. So I think you are in perfect alignment there.

  • Cornel Darden Jr.

    I think we need to focus more on why and how to use wikipedia than just telling students not to use it. I think they get very confused when the first thing that is said is that: “You can’t use wikipedia for scholarly research”; and then say: “Oh, but it is a great place to start”.

    I think this confuses them and they end up mis-using it anyway and/or totally avoiding it.

  • Just Sayin’

    Perhaps a lot of the misinformation websites would fade away if people could go back to being more discerning and discriminating.

  • Marta L.

    When people discuss Wikipedia, I think they skip over a related question: to what extent is an encyclopedia appropriate at all? Sometimes it is, but only in particular circumstances for the kind of paper I’m setting my students. I hope my answer would be the same for my scholarly writing, though the issue hasn’t come up yet.

    I’m a philosophy doctoral student who teaches smallish (around 20 or 35 students, depending on whether it’s writing-intensive or not) sections of core courses. Usually I ask them to present a section from some philosophical text and either argue that it’s wrong for some specific reason or defend it against such an argument. So sometimes empirical evidence from other disciplines is relevant. For instance, Descartes’s Dream Argument assumes it is impossible to know whether you are dreaming or awake, but studies in lucid dreaming suggest this might not be true. I’ve had students use a Wikipedia page on lucid dreaming and had no problem with this. But I would be much more skeptical of a them using an encyclopedia article on Descartes’s Dream Argument. Wikipedia has decent philosophy entries, actually, but they operate strictly as an encyclopedia article, laying out the accepted version of the argument with quotes from primary sources and perhaps looking at the ways other historical philosophers have responded. The thing about student scholarship, and even more professional scholarship, is we should be moving beyond this “standard reading” level of working with a text.

    But, out of fairness, I’d also be skeptical if they quoted the Brittanica. Wikipedia articles can be done well and, particularly if you link to a static version, they’re not per se worse than other encyclopedia sources. I can even imagine some entries that act more like review articles giving an overview of the scholarly debate with references to academic journal articles or books. I’m not bothered by the way the material is presented, anymore than I would be differentiate between a peer-reviewed, online-only scholarly journal and one published offline in the traditional matter. My concern with Wikipedia is more that the kind of content on offer typically isn’t suitable for professional (or student) scholarship. I’ve found several that are actually very well done, clearly by people with some academic training and familiarity, and so I wouldn’t necessarily judge a Wikipedia article as per se less worthy than its offline analogue.

  • Joseph Kelly

    James, a couple of thoughts.

    You said, “If I wrote an introduction to a topic, posted it on or my SelectedWorks page, and mentioned it in a footnote, I suspect that most younger scholars would not see anything objectionable. So what then if I were to edit the Wikipedia page on the same topic, making it really accurate and polished, and then linked to a fixed version of it? Would that be fundamentally different (assuming that I indicated that that was what I had done)?”

    My response: I don’t think that one references a “fixed version” of a Wikipedia article. An exception, I often use the Talk page of the Ecclesiastes Wikipedia entry to discuss popular conceptions of Qohelet’s piety to spur discussion ( But citation conventions require you to cite the access date of the resource, not a particular iteration of that resource. For Wikipedia, the keen researcher is able to go back and see the page as it appeared on that date, but Wikipedia is a fundamentally dynamic resource. I consider the dynamism of this source particularly appealing for certain kinds of references, and my motivation for citing it may be in part this dynamism.

    For example, if I wanted to reference a general article on Y-Chromosomal Adam to orient text critics to the implications of arguing for an “original text” based on a “genetic” metaphor, I consider Wikipedia to be a particularly viable source. It is fairly specific, suggesting a topic too narrow for a general encyclopedia likely to be found in most theological libraries. Wikipedia solves the question of access, and furthermore promises to remain up-to-date. Print resources to date would not incorporate the most recent findings of this year that have really reshaped the when (but not the what) of Y-Chromosomal Adam. This example is particularly pertinent because one is not citing general literature in one’s own field, where access to good general material can be assumed of the implied reader. It involves cross-disciplinary discussions for which a Wikipedia article may provide more than the necessary depth of subject matter to adequately serve the information purposes of the author.

    I’ve only addressed one particular aspect of what you have raised. I’ll allow others to speak to many of the other aspects. But I do want to push back on one other thing you said. “Having it printed in a scholarly journal would indicate quality” I completely disagree. Much of what is printed in scholarly journals I consider to be poor in quality and content. I *believe* in the peer review process. But I think it ensures quality at the level of trends in scholarship, not at the level of an individual study.

    • Thanks Joseph! I’ve certainly read things where I’ve wondered how the piece in question made it past peer review. But on the whole, it is my experience that peer review does a pretty good job of ensuring quality in the sense of making sure that a publication is using appropriate methods and arguments. That doesn’t mean it is persuasive or correct, of course, but that’s not what peer review evaluates.

  • A blind man would be glad to see…

  • Sterling Ericsson

    The fact that you can link to a fixed version of any article at any edit point really removes the issue of reliability. If someone like a scholar fixes up an article and links to the fixed version when they’re done, then that will stay as is. It won’t change, because it is a link to the fixed version.

    Really, as you said, it would be just as reliable as the scholar posting said information on their own website.

    More people just need to know about fixed page versions for Wikipedia.

  • newenglandsun

    It’s not scholarly is the real problem. Sure, it gives a basic overview of a topic, but to cite in a scholarly work is just ridiculous because it never gives a scholarly overview. Great source of esoteric knowledge, bad source to use it as a scholarly source. I try to use as little online stuff as possible in research papers.