Wikipedia: Do you use it? Do you cite it? And, is it a good thing?


So, I just went to a Science Journalism conference recently. And one of the sessions, in particular, that resulted in a heated argument, was whether the internet and the whole Web2.0 was a good thing.

Particularly from the angle of whether it was good at providing science news, or increasing science literacy generally. The arguments (pro and con) more or less went as follows:

With the web, you have an incredible increase in accessibility, as well as the ability of following up the paper trail of what it is that is being reported (i.e. you can track down the original source relatively easily these days). You also have an increase in citizen journalism, which means that smaller voices can have a say. This ultimately results in the ability for things otherwise not deemed "news worthy" to have a place in media. Science culture (how science is done, as oppose to what is the final result) in particular can benefit from this.

However, on the flip side, you have a scary lack of filtering going on. In that anybody (even wingnuts and crackpots) can make a decent looking website, and therefore potentially provide biased and even incorrect information in such a way that it becomes viewed as a "trusted source." As well, websites that command the most clout in filtering or aggregating these things tend to focus on the goofy, silly, wow-type things - not always relevant items. Looking at the top hits for an web aggregator like (for science) is a great example of this. Finally, how exactly does pulling info from the web relate to the average Joe - somebody who might use the website, but necessarily follow the trends and caveats behind its use.

Anyway, during the debate, Wikipedia came up, and it was brought to light that a lot of University students not only use it, but actually rely on it. For instance, they might cite it in a paper they are writing for class, and there were many in the audience who thought this was a dangerous slope to go down.

So, I'm curious - how many of you out there use Wikipedia? And how many of you (be frank please) trust it? For instance, how many of you are actually aware that in many respects, it is a popularity contest, because the content is community produced, and essentially the louder more frequent voices control the content you see for each entry? What do you think generally about Wikipedia?

More like this

I use it for little and/or odd things, like what is the Galileo Gambit? What is up with the Hitler Zombie thing? What on earth is the deal with 'teh'? Basically, when I can't figure out an obscure (to me) reference (usually in a comment on someone's blog), Wiki can usually sort me out.

Would I use it for anything serious? No. Would I cite it? Never, because I wouldn't use it for anything serious! Original, peer-reviewed literature, please . . . .

By ctenotrish, FCD (not verified) on 13 Nov 2007 #permalink

I just finished an undergrad math degree, and my first stop for a lot of work was good old wikipedia. The fact is, since it was math, and since it was concepts I was trying to learn, the wiki is either right or wrong, and I can usually tell - if I understand it, and it helps me do problems, it's correct.

That's the place I see wikis for science research, a good way to get context/concepts. It's only a starting point.

By Aaron Lemur Mintz (not verified) on 13 Nov 2007 #permalink

I use it for things I've heard of but never got to know about.

Recent example: I saw someone with the nametag 'Martika', and the name rang a faint bell, but it was from some time many years ago. I dredged through my memory but couldn't come up with anything more, just where I lived at that time, which limited it to 1976-1988.

Wikipedia gave me Marta Marrero, a singer who went by her nickname, Martika, when she debuted in 1988. That clicked it for me. Somebody had described her to me and recommended that I listen to her music, and the name stuck in my mind.

BTW, I asked the girl about the name. Her father had named her after the singer before she was conceived, and he died before she was born. Her mother honored his wishes.

I'm liking this ability to easily get the skinny on 'what was that all about?'

Like ctenotrish, I mainly use Wikipedia to get background information on topics outside my discipline (on topics like history, politics, physics, etc.) and for general outlines on unfamiliar topics within my discipline, just to get an overview.

The problem I find is that the coverage on most scientific topics is so spotty, that anyone with at least a passing familiarity with the topic will already know most of the information in the article. If you are doing anything serious (as opposed to satifying idle curiosity), Wikipedia is not sufficient.

As such, (as well as the whole reliability issue) I would never cite Wikipedia for an professional reasons*, although I rely on it heavily for "personal" intrests.

*Nor, for that matter, do I find it is a suitable "jumping off" point for linked references - a Pubmed/Scifinder search is much more productive.

To begin with, I'm not a scientist. But over the years I've used a sizable number of reference sources for various purposes, some personal and some business. And I've advised my daughters on writing highschool and university papers.

Is Wikipedia a Good Thing? Absolutely ... but whether I think it's a Good Thing or not is irrelevant - it's here and it's not going anywhere. Useful? Beyond question. Trustworthy? Depends.

An example where I did not verify further - I was looking for the wording of a quote about the Elizabethan composer John Bull. First Google hit - Wikipedia. And it's a good quote ...

The Archbishop of Canterbury had said of him the previous year: the man hath more music than honesty and is as famous for marring of virginity as he is for fingering of organs and virginals.

I'm confident beyond a reasonable doubt that this is accurate.

On the other hand, if it were information on something controversial (oh, I don't know ... the war in Iraq, perhaps), I might use Wikipedia, but I would certainly want another source or two.

In other words, Wikipedia is a powerful tool. As with other powerful tools, you must have your wits about you when using it, or it may do you more harm than good.

Final comment - I recall discouraging my daughter from citing Wikipedia if only because you cannot be confident that the cite you used will still be the same if someone checks it.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 13 Nov 2007 #permalink

When I use it, I use it to get a foothold on a topic. I tend to skip the meat of the article and jump right to the references, but it depends on what I'm interested in.

If it's benign pop culture stuff or an obscure topic, I'll sit and read it.

If it's mathematics or computer science, I'll read it and check out the references to corroborate. I find these topics to be written mostly without blatant bias.

If it's other science, I skim the beginning and jump to references, coming back to read it if I feel the need.

If the topic is political, I avoid it, unless I'm looking for immediate facts, like term in office.

I would never cite it due to its volatility. I would prefer to see anyone following my references to be able to find what I was reading immediately. At best, I would mention it in a footnote.

I was an active Wikipedia contributor for a few years (until I tried blogging and found it more fun). Nowadays, I point people to it if they're looking for a summary of a topic, or if I can't find a good website on the subject elsewhere. I find it a useful resource for locating references which are not journal articles.

Incidentally, if you ever do need to cite a Wikipedia article, note that the "permanent link" feature (check out the left-hand sidebar) lets you link to a specific version of a page. For example, here's the current version of the article James Burke (science historian); that link will remain valid until Wikipedia goes foom. This is probably more permanent than many another website!

I think it depends on what you use it for. I often use it for simple definition, for which I already have a feel, and it helps lead the way. I also use it for definitions of terms I use in blog posts. My husband uses it quite extensively, mainly as a source for pictures in the humanities. Again, he already knows the material, but finds Wikipedia an easy centralized source for general information. However, neither hubby nor I would use Wikipedia as a alternative to peer-reviewed literature. It does have it's uses though.

I use Wikipedia as a general reference on many subjects. Great when you are watching TV with ones friends and a question comes up like when did someone start playing Football or other general trivia.

I have also used it as a source in a paper I wrote on coal bed methane in the San Juan basin. The methane article had more info on methane then my general chemistry, organic chemistry and Merck Index combined, plus it had a figure of a methane molecule that I could copy into my paper. I also use it frequently to look up the scientific name or common name of organism. When I took ornithology I found it to be a great reference and I am sure the birders keep it well policed since they tend to be a bit fanatical about their hobby.

Wikipedia is a great source, but never trust it on a topic that involves opinion (never trust any single source then, my rule) or frequently debated topics.

I am an undergrad student, and I would never dream of citing Wikipedia in a paper (even if the professor didn't explicitly state that it's not acceptable, although some do).
Although I don't rely on it as source for academic purposes, I do use it daily. It's great for quick information on something or for links to more detailed, accredited sites or citations, but I never use it as a single source for anything.

Wikipedia has become my preferred search engine. I'll hit Google only if Wikipedia doesn't help. Sometimes hopping within it may take an hour - I call it "wikisurfing". Important issues I doublecheck from other sources. Wikipedia usually offers good pointers.

I quote it in online discussions, but only very seldom anywhere else.

By Lassi Hippel�inen (not verified) on 13 Nov 2007 #permalink

I think I'm with most here. I use it for the references and a general bead on obscure (to me) terms, but I would never cite it for anything serious. At most, when I'm blogging, I may link to a wiki page just to give the reader a general bead on a potentially obscure topic.

Generally, I think it's of limited use for a starting point, but not really a good source of factual material.

(Bio and Math major, here)

I'm with the general consensus- I start out using it, and then meander around to more reliable places with the information I acquire from there and/or the references cited in the article. Probably the worst thing I do is MSDS data from Wikipedia, when it's there, but that's because I'm lazy.

And holy crap, would I NEVER, ever! cite Wikipedia in a paper. I use it as a launching point, not as something worth referencing! I don't trust it that much.

I'm an English professor, and I frequently look up things in Wikipedia, but only as a way of refreshing my memory or locating a better source. The latter is how I encourage my students to use it as well. I tell them that it is acceptable to consult Wikipedia to generate a list of people, events, and concepts that are important to their topic. They can then enter these terms into the library catalog and into the JStor and MLA indices. My students must turn in annotated bibliographies for any topic they write on, and none of the annotations can be based on Wikipedia articles. Nor are they permitted to cite Wikipedia articles in the finished paper. Of course, I wouldn't allow them to annotate or cite articles in most print encyclopedias, either.

I'm a Wikipedia admin ( ) and I would not encourage people to cite Wikipedia. Wikipedia is most useful for getting background info on a topic before one researches further. Aaron Lemur Mintz (#2) also brings up something where it is useful for- where one can get quick data on something. But in general, you shouldn't cite any encyclopedia by itself and Wikipedia is not an exception. Use it for background or use it to get ideas of what to look for, but don't cite it unless you absolutely have to (and if you do cite it, note the date). Wikipedia can be used well when it is used responsibly. That means among other things, checking the recent history of the article (located at the "history" button at the top of the page) and checking the article talk page to see if the item you care about is at all disputed. But please don't cite it for science.

By Joshua Zelinsky (not verified) on 13 Nov 2007 #permalink

I love Wikipedia. I think it's an excellent general reference.

Anyone who uses Wikipedia has to realize that anyone can insert prank edits. Most of them are pretty transparent -- either they're brute-force pranks like wiping out an entire entry, or else they make wild claims along the lines of "He was born in 1925, ten years after he personally and single-handedly sank the Lusitania." Most of this stuff gets corrected pretty quickly, but unless you're the kind of credulous net.user who always Forwards This To Everyone On Your List, it's easy to spot crankery.

I don't cite Wikipedia in my professional writing, for the same reason I don't cite Encyclopedia Britannica. It's not original research and it isn't peer-reviewed to the same standards as original research. I will link to Wiki pages in my blog, or in informal e-mails, if I use a term that might need further definition for the reader.

By Julie Stahlhut (not verified) on 13 Nov 2007 #permalink

I find it to be an invaluable source for solving The World's Fair's Puzzles Fantastica...

And, as mentioned above, for references to popular culture allusions I otherwise would have missed.

By Joe in LA (not verified) on 13 Nov 2007 #permalink

I think wikipedia is a wonderful tool; I'm an academic scientist and I use it almost daily. It's just a matter of educated usage. For instance, it's the fastest way to find technical definitions or engineering terms (say, I need to remind myself of what the EIA-485 communication protocol is, or Bernouilli's equation, or whatever). Those type articles are thoroughly referenced and have links to other pertinent sites. Like mathematics, these articles are either right or wrong- there isn't much room for interpretation and there is very little cause for any sort of disagreement.

It is of course great for random pop culture things, or a general introduction to just about anything. I would only cite it in an informal 'publication' (like my blog), but that's as much snobbery as caution, when it comes to simple facts. I used to teach physics to arts students and always started term with a lecture on appropriate sources of information, so I would expect a decent excuse should they cite wikipedia (i.e. they are writing about pop culture)!

Have you seen the studies comparing it (favourably!) to Britannica? (i.e. Jim Giles, Nature 438, 900 - 901 (2005)). The Encyclopedia Britannica was all written by self-appointed volunteers originally too. Though, as noted above, any general encyclopedia article is not the same as a peer-reviewed article and should be treated accordingly.

My favorite thing about Wikipedia is that, in some cases, even truth is subjective. An extreme example would be the difference between Wikipedia and say, history textbooks in the U.S. that skewed the Christopher Columbus story. There's an DIFFERENT SORT of accountability that comes from a wide variety of contributors - Wikis are checked by those outside the Western world and this helps keep the point of view honest.

A recent example could be the discussion behind what Hezbollah actually was - fascinating. U.S. sources said it was a terrorist organization, Wikipedia listed a variety of view.

I use it as a starting point. It's easy to read and will give a good overview. The most useful things are the citations. There you can check out where the writers of the entry found their information. I use those cited resources since they are more likely to be less subjective.