Posted by: John Vandivier | October 14, 2013

Why You Should Reference Wikipedia

This article will discuss reasons to reference Wikipedia pages.

Wikipedia is a great resource with a mixed reputation. It is lauded as an introductory or quick reference, but despised as an academic one. The reason is simply that it is easily edited by just about anyone. This objection is a poor one.

Wikipedia allows the use of ‘permanent links’ which will permanently refer to a frozen copy of a Wikipedia article. I have previously written on how to generate and reference these links. These referenced pages are not editable.

We do need to check Wikipedia’s sources just as we would check the source of any other article, but after verifying that a source is accurately and appropriately used we can freeze the Wikipedia article with a permanent link and reference that link instead of the original article.

Critics of Wikipedia would make yet another objection at this point. Answering that objection is the primary purpose of this article. The objection would be twofold. First they would argue that this is all a great waste of time and we may as well link to the original article. Secondly they would point out that authors have a bias and this fact is worsened because Wikipedia has multiple and sometimes anonymous authors.

Neither of these objections work and I will start with the second objection. The fact that Wikipedia is so easy for anyone to manipulate means that it will over time move to reflect less bias than a particular author would. It will move to reflect some kind of equilibrium consensus of popular opinion. It is true that in some low volume or very new pages there can sometimes be bias, but if you check sources of the article before freezing the page as I previously advised this will not be a problem. In conclusion, ceteris paribus the evidence actually indicates that there will be less bias in a Wikipedia article than in any usual article.

We see that the answer to the second objection provides a positive example of an advantage of using Wikipedia over traditional media which we can use to then refute the first objection, but this is not the only positive advantage. Wikipedia articles reduce bias and they also provide a concise, comprehensive and broad literature review with instant and hyper-linked additional resources on demand. Lastly, they are free. The free thing is significant. There are plenty of articles I have objected to and wanted to check sources on, but they referenced expensive journal articles or books I knew I would never read except for the purpose of checking this one thing. In those cases I had a rational economic motive to avoid verifying that an article was properly sourced. Such is not the case when we use Wikipedia.

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