Bristol Community College

Bristol Community College

Should I use or cite Wikipedia? Probably not.

Should you use or cite Wikipedia as a source for an academic paper? The answer depends on your research topic. Wikipedia may be useful as a primary source on popular culture, or for subjects that have not been addressed in the scholarly literature. For more academic topics, however, it cannot compete with the library's specialized encyclopedias and online resources. 

Academic Topics

For most topics, you should use and cite a scholarly work rather than Wikipedia. The library has more resources than you can imagine; ask a reference librarian for assistance if you're unsure of where to begin.

Consider researching a topic like "postmodernism" for an English paper. The Wikipedia entry on postmodernism seems fairly well written and ends with an extensive bibliography. But compare this to the modernism/postmodernism in Collins Dictionary of Sociology.

Unlike Wikipedia, the articles in Credo Reference and similar academic reference sources are signed. Articles in Wikipedia may be well written and insightful, but they are not embedded in the world of scholarly discourse. Without knowing who wrote the article, it is more difficult to judge whether the author's writing is worthy of consideration, or to critique his or her motivations or qualifications. Without a known author, Wikipedia articles cannot be considered authoritative.

Popular Culture

When using Wikipedia as a primary source on popular culture, cite it and analyze it accordingly.

For studies of popular culture, Wikipedia and other websites may provide useful material, but they should be treated with healthy skepticism. Suppose you are researching a topic like "reggaeton." As a relatively recent pop music phenomenon, there is very little scholarly literature on the subject. In this case, you might turn to the popular press for background information, and to websites discussing reggaeton. Wikipedia is not the authority on the subject, but just one voice among many on the web. As such, it should be read as a primary source and evaluated accordingly.

The references in Wikipedia to other resources such as news articles can be helpful, but these should be verified. For example, if Wikipedia cites an article on reggaeton in the New York Times, you should use the library's online database ProQuest Newspapers to find and read the article for yourself. In cases like this, Wikipedia and its references can provide basic information, but you must provide the scholarly analysis.

General Knowledge

For general knowledge, use an academic source. You don't have to cite, but you do have to get it right.

General knowledge, such as names and dates, doesn't need to be cited, but it does need to be correct. As described above, Wikipedia is useful but not authoritative, so it's a good idea to verify information you find there in an academic reference source such as Credo Reference.  You can find the same information as you did in Wikipedia, plus references to other scholarly works that will help with your research.

Further Reading

Schiff, Stacy.  "Know it all: Can Wikipedia conquer expertise?" The New Yorker, February 26, 2006