Research Tools: Using Wikipedia or Not?

Philip Roth
Novelist Philip Roth who had a problem with his Wikipedia entry.

When I used to list the dos and don’ts for my students writing term papers, I warned them

not to cite Wikipedia as a source. At the same time, I also said it wasn’t a bad idea to consult Wikipedia

in writing your paper. While this may seem contradictory and perhaps hypocritical, I assure you it is not.

The most basic reason for not citing a Wikipedia article is that your professor will almost automatically disallow it and your grade can suffer. The articles also fail to meet one of the most traditional criteria for evaluating a published source.

As I noted in yesterday’s post, Wikipedia articles might be seen as term papers rather than original scholarly research. In fact, the guidelines for contributors specifically state:

“Wikipedia does not publish original research or original thought. This includes unpublished facts, arguments, speculation, and ideas, as well as any unpublished analysis or synthesis of published material that serves to advance a position. This means that Wikipedia is not the place to publish your own opinions, experiences, arguments, or conclusions.”

Given these rules, it is understandable that their entries tend to repeat the standard narrative on any topic.

More important, almost anybody can write or rewrite an article, and the author’s identity is by policy anonymous. So there is no way to tell whether it was written by high school dropout or by a specialist with a PhD. How then, professors will point out, can you evaluate the validity of an article if you are unable to check out the author’s credentials?

But if you’re unfamiliar with a topic, a good Wikipedia article can provide a useful summary of information about it; in addition, its citations, lists of further reading and external links can also give you a quick overview of the literature in the field—which is one the values of a good encyclopedia.

However, Wikipedia articles can at times be wildly inaccurate and misleading, especially in regards to lesser known topics. Scholars who come across one of these erroneous entries may not be inclined to complain or take the time to rewrite it. (Why bother rewriting something only to have some person or persons unknown promptly change it?)

The seeming absurdity of some of Wikipedia’s policies was revealed in 2012, when Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth tried to correct a “misstatement” about the inspiration for his novel, The Human Stain. However, his request was rejected because Roth was not considered a credible source of information about himself. However, they did note the corrections when Roth published an open letter to Wikipedia in The New Yorker, since, under their rules, it was a more credible source! For a more nuanced history of this episode, I recommend two pieces published in The Guardian here and here.

— Harvey Deneroff

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