The problem with Wikipedia; an academic source, or not?

Wikipedia is a wondrous source of information for the casual reader.  Dedicated contributors scour the internet and various other media in search of information and data, and bring them together in pages that neatly organise all that gobble-dy-gook into easily accessible, easily understandable articles for us to read an enlighten ourselves with.  But is Wikipedia a reliable source of information, and more importantly a source that can be referenced/cited in academic articles?

Let’s delve into this question.

Defining Wikipedia

Before we can address whether Wikipedia is a usable source, we first need to understand what exactly Wikipedia is.  At its core Wikipedia is an online database and information platform that allows the public to write articles about topics with the aim of centralising information in such a way that is easily accessible, and that informs its readers.  Wikipedia aims to be as objective and neutral as possible, to simply provide the information and data, and not to push an agenda.

The problem with Wikipedia

The largest issue with Wikipedia, lies with the way in which it functions, namely: that anyone is able to contribute to its articles.  This means that any person, regardless of background and capability or knowledge/expertise on/in the subject in question, can contribute to the article.  Yes, there are certain editing protocols in place to screen out unreliable information, but these processes, fundamentally, are not satisfactory.

Articles are liable to being one-sided or pushing a particular agenda, as can be seen in the case study below.  Depending on the topic, information varies on its shoddiness, reliability and trustworthiness.  This is especially a problem in articles on topics, of a recent and/or controversial nature.  An article that is particularly guilty of this is the Wikipedia article on the GamerGate controversy.   The article goes into minutiae and quite extensive detail on one of the two sides of the argument, but fail to give proper credence and attention to the other side.  The article only passingly note what the members of the movement itself say about the movement, opting instead to focus on what its critics and opponents say about it.

A cop-out that Wikipedia offers, whilst not specifically to address this problem, is that they focused solely on sources they considered satisfactorily reputable.  Again, herein lies a specific problem.  Most of the reputable sources have been demonstrated to be pushing an agenda, and to, with regard to this particular issue, not be reputable.

Now it is understandable that issues of an immediate and changing nature will necessarily be harder to write on to the same level of academic scrutiny and standard as other, more stable and unchanging nature, but this highlights a fundamental problem with the way in which Wikipedia functions, as explained above.

Further, academic material go into a certain required level of depth regarding their subject matter, which Wikipedia does not.  This is understandable considering it is itself not an academic work, but merely aims to give a cursory oversight into the subject matter.  But this still means that it does not meet the academic standards required of something to be viable and reliable as a source.

Finally, though this point is similar to some presented above, it is worth mentioning specifically.  Wikipedia allows contributors that do not have extensive academic knowledge and background on the subject matter, to contribute.  Academic works on Psychology, Astrophysics, Corporate Communication, etc. are authored by individuals with extensive background, knowledge, and experience on the subject matter, and that have done extensive research regarding the subject matter before authoring the work.  Wikipedia’s contributors do not necessarily, and I venture to argue in most cases, meet this same standard.

Should Wikipedia, then, be cited/referenced in an academic work?

The simple, and short, answer is no.  As explained above, Wikipedia is liable to offer an incomplete view of the subject matter, are written by individuals who do not necessarily have the necessary knowledge, expertise, academic background on the subject matter, or have not necessarily done thorough enough research on the subject matter.  Avoid referencing/citing Wikipedia in an academic work at all costs.

How can Wikipedia be used?

Wikipedia is not completely worthless to the academic and author.  It offers a good starting point for ones research.  Do not avoid Wikipedia entirely, read through its articles as a way to gain a cursory oversight into the subject matter, and look into the sources it cites, just make sure that you do not base your arguments on Wikipedia, or us it as a source in your material, always read further.


Header Image available at Wikimedia.org

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