Developing a Wikipedia Research Policy

Alan Liu posted the following on Humanist. I asked his permission to repost it here, and he consented. I'll post some thoughts of my own as a response to this post. For now, I'd offer that Dr. Liu's post seems to strike a good balance; I wonder how students would react to this statement.


Subject: Request for Comment: draft policy statement on student use of Wikipedia

Dear Willard,

This message is a request for comment (the humanities version of a RFC). 2006 appears to be the year that undergraduate students discovered Wikipedia in a big way. My colleagues and I have been seeing an increasing number of papers that use Wikipedia inappropriately as the sole or primary reference. For example, I just read a paper about the relation between Structuralism, Deconstruction, and Postmodernism in which every reference was to the Wikipedia articles on those topics with no awareness that there was any need to read a primary work or even a critical work. After writing comments to a number of students on this topic, I set to work on a general policy statement addressed to the student that might be shared among my local community of scholars (see draft below). I thought such a statement might be of general use. I welcome any suggestions from, or discussion by, the Humanist community as well as pointers to any similar statements that
may exist. (Still to do is a one-paragraph version of such a statement suitable for inclusion in a course syllabus.)

--Alan Liu, UC Santa Barbara


In recent years, Wikipedia ( has become one of the most important and useful resources on the Internet. Created by an open community of authors (anyone can contribute, edit, or correct articles), it has become a powerful resource for researchers to consult alongside other
established library and online resources. As in the case of all tools, however, its value is a function of appropriateness. In the case of college-level essays or research papers, students should keep in mind the following two limitations, one applying to all encyclopedias, and the other specifically to Wikipedia:

(1) As in the case of any encyclopedia, Wikipedia is not appropriate as the primary or sole reference for anything that is central to an argument, complex, or controversial. "Central to an argument" means that the topic in question is crucial for the paper. (For example, a paper
_about_ Shakespeare or postmodernism cannot rely on an encyclopedia article on those topics.) "Complex" means anything requiring analysis, critical thought, or evaluation. (For example, it is not persuasive to cite an encyclopedia on "spirituality.") "Controversial" means anything that
requires listening to the original voices in a debate because no consensus or conventional view has yet emerged. (For example, cite an encyclopedia on the historical facts underlying a recent political election, but not on themeaning or trends indicated by that election.) These limitations are due to the fact that encyclopedia articles are second- or third-hand summaries. They are excellent starting points for learning about something. But a college-level research paper or critical essay needs to consult directly the articles, books, or other sources mentioned by an encyclopedia article and use those as the reference. The best such sources are those that have been refereed ("peer-reviewed" by other scholars before acceptance for publication, which is the case for most scholarly journals and books) or, in the case of current events, journalistic or other resources that are relatively authoritative in their field.

However, a Wikipedia citation can be an appropriate convenience when the point being supported is minor, non-controversial, or also supported by other evidence. In addition, Wikipedia is an appropriate source for some extremely recent topics (especially in popular culture or technology) for which it provides the sole or best available synthetic, analytical, or historical discussion.

(2) Wikipedia has special limitations because it is an online encyclopedia written by a largely unregulated, worldwide, and often anonymous community of contributors. The principle of "many-eyes" policing upon which Wikipedia depends for quality-control (that is, many people
looking at and correcting articles) works impressively well in many cases. However:
(a) Wikipedia is currently an uneven resource. For example, articles on technological or popular culture topics can sometimes be more reliable, vetted (corrected by a community experts), or current than articles on humanistic issues of the sort that students in literature, history, and other humanities majors often need to research.
(b) Some articles in Wikipedia are unreliable because they are the contested terrain of "edit wars," political protest, or vandalism. Such articles include both those on obviously controversial topics and on unexpected topics. For a sobering sense of the limitations of Wikipedia, consult the long list of "protected" Wikipedia articles (articles that Wikipedia no longer, or at least not for now, allows users to edit in the normal way in order to protect them from edit wars or other mischief):
<>. (See also the bibliography appended below on recent controversies about the reliability of Wikipedia.) Students should also keep in mind that Wikipedia--like the Internet as a whole--is edited globally. This means that topics related to
"United States," "China," "Tony Blair," or "World Cup soccer," for example (and many others), are contested terrain.

(c) Students should be aware that Wikipedia is a dynamic, constantly mutating resource. Even if it is appropriate to cite it as a reference, the citation is meaningless unless it includes the date on which the page was accessed (which would allow a reader to use the Wikipedia "history" feature to look up the specific version of the article being referenced). Indeed, Wikipedia articles on some topics change so frequently (even to the extent of vandals "reverting" to earlier scandalous misinformation) that a citation should include the exact hour of access.

Students should feel free to consult Wikipedia as one of the most powerful instruments for opening knowledge that the Internet has yet produced. But it is not a one-stop-shop for reliable knowledge. Indeed, the term "encyclopedia" is somewhat to blame. Because it is communal, dynamic, and unrefereed, Wikipedia is not really (or not just) an encyclopedia of knowledge. It is better thought of as a combination of encyclopedia and "blog." It is the world's blog.


Bibliography of Articles on the Controversy Regarding Wikipedia's

* Steven Musil, "Wikipedia's Woes," C/NET, 9 December 2005

* John Seigenthaler, "A False Wikipedia 'Biography'," USA, 29
November 2005

* Daniel Terdiman, "Study: Wikipedia as Accurate as Britannica," C/Net, 15 December 2005 <>

* Ray Cha, "Another Round: Britannica versus Wikipedia," if:book, 31
March 2006

* Lisa Vaas, "Wikipedia Erects Accuracy Firewall," 19 December 2005

* Katie Hafner, "Growing Wikipedia Revises Its 'Anyone Can Edit'
Policy," New York Times, 17 June 2006
=slogin&adxnnlx=1150630485-m7D+jesnoKz+kAAD8almhw> (alternative site:


I'm even thinking about including a list in my syllabus of "Sources that are, in the vast majority of cases, inappropriate for a college research paper," and including the following, all of which come from actual papers I've graded:


Sites that just consist of a bunch of out-of-context sound bites, like Janet Reno quotes

There will probably be more. Of course a lot of this comes from having to meet an arbitrary quota of "at least 8-10 sources." One solution to this would be to abolish a required number of sources, but this could present other kinds of headaches with litigious types ("But you said!!"). Actually, though, I'd much rather read a paper that draws upon two credible, substantial sources than 8-10 flimsy ones.




It's hilarious that the example paper he mentions is one on Postmodernism and Deconstruction. I mean, show me the "authoratative" work on these subjects. Where is the Official Source? Doesn't the quest for such a reference more or less negate itself? It's like coming in second at the Village Idiot contest because you bothered to show up.

I think it makes more sense to tell students only to use Wikipedia, and to avoid suspicious sources from so-called "scholars" and "experts." After all, these types are hardly disinterested, since they have their own agendas and a strong desire to keep the power they've amassed as "scholars" and "experts." Indeed, journal articles are some of the worst sources you could possibly cite. How can you expect objectivity from a so-called "refereed" source that depends on only two anonymous "peer" reviewers? Yeah, tell me that system isn't as rigged as Presidential elections. Anyone who's read enough "comments" from these folks knows just how corrupt and unfair the peer review system really is--and the editors know exactly which reviewers to send the works they have no desire to publish in their journal.

No, I can't privilege the academic journal or book over the trusty Wikipedia. The Wikipedia may be full of errors, inconsistencies, plagiarism, and just general Tom Foolery, but at least there's no one there with a Reputation to Uphold.

As far as I'm concerned, the further you creep from the safety of Wikipedia, the more likely you are to be snared by the most disturbing errors of all--those that involve maintaining a tyrannical hierarchy at the expense of rational-critical discourse.

As Patrick Henry so eloquently put it, "Give me freedom or give me a subscription to an academic journal." Look that up in your Funk'n Wagnalls.

Check out Barton's other blogs at Armchair Arcade and Gameology.

When I put Wikipedia on my list, I was thinking of Jimmy Wales' comment referenced here" "For God's sake, you're in college; don't cite the encyclopedia." So that in fact goes for any general reference encyclopedia -- World Book, Britannica, etc. Specialized encyclopedias (The Encyclopedia of Gender and Information Technology, The Encyclopedia of Postmodernism, etc) are sometimes okay.





I think wikipedia (and more generally, the web) can be a great place to teach students how to evaluate the worth and reliability of a source—a skill that is becoming increasingly important. Telling students to stick to academic sources is to make illegitimate the wealth of information and ideas that are out there. Helping them develop evaluative criteria to enable them to select trustworthy sources would be much more effective than banning wikipedia or its ilk as sources.

We do a good bit of that in class, but those sources still turn up in bibliographies sometimes. The way I'd do it in class would be to go over evaluative criteria, *then* say, "and some examples of sources that usually do not meet these criteria are..." then give the list.




Interesting to note that the Investigative Committee of the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct at the University of Colorado at Boulder--a body that could be said to have had a rather hyperactive interest in scholarly standards of research and citation--cites Wikipedia in a footnote on page 13 of its recent report examining charges against Ward Churchill for academic malfeasance. The note points readers to the Wikipedia account of divisions within the American Indian Movement. True, the committee makes sure to let us know the account is "brief, albeit incomplete" (as opposed to long, albeit comprehensive?), but there that URL sits--a tacit endorsement of scholarly use of the fruit of Jimmy Wales' loins.

First, I'm waiting for Matt to post his bank account information on wikipedia so I can search for it any time I need to clean out someone's bank account other than my own.

My policy with wikipedia, which also found its way to the humanist list because I subscribe to the list and occasionally post to it, is to allow students to cite it but because my papers have certain research expectations, wikipedia can't count as one of their required sources. This goes for all encyclopedias. I don't know if it's a good balance or not, but I also require they use websites put up by scholars rather than boneheads, and we talk about the difference between authoritative and not-so-authoritative sources in print (or databases). It's not a great policy, and I expect it to change over time, but that's where it's at now. bradley ||

There's a way to avoid having to cite the day, hour, and minute of the Wikipedia version. On the left of every Wikipedia page (under toolbox), there's a link with the text "Permanent link"; you can copy/write down that url. The advantage is, that url will always refer to the current, unique version of article.

For example, I copied the Permanent link for United States of America: No matter when you go to the URL, you'll see the same version I just saw.

This is very useful for citations. Also, below "Permanent link" is "Cite this article". That contains additional information, already packaged into several standard citation formats, including MLA. Of course, one should make sure to follow the instructor's specification, if applicable.