The Role of Wikipedia in Academic Essays

My essay class are doing their first assessed essay this week and they’re a bit nervous. They’ve got lots of questions. But one question really struck me. A student asked ‘Is it OK to cite Wikipedia?’ My standard answer is, ‘if you use it, you should cite it’ – as with any source. But this simply prompted the next question:

‘Is it OK to use Wikipedia for a university essay?’

The answer to that one is slightly longer and requires a bit more cautious language! This question, and a few blog posts I’ve read recently on the topic, inspired this post; on understanding role of Wikipedia in academic essay writing.

I’ve often heard stories of colleagues who ‘ban’ students from using Wikipedia. The argument I hear most commonly against using Wikipedia for essays is that ‘anyone can write anything they like on Wikipedia’. Well, yes, that is true, it is a community-written and community-edited resource; but really I think the number of people reading Wikipedia means that any nonsense will quickly be edited out, so actually the risk of finding incorrect information is probably comparatively low.

For me, the bigger issue that anyone (Especially students!) using Wikipedia needs to understand is that it is not an academic source. Wikipedia even says this about itself! (See ‘Wikiepdia: Academic Use’) And students (and teachers) need to understand why not:

it’s an encyclopaedia!

As far as encyclopaedias go, it’s actually probably a pretty good one; with up-to-date information and a huge variety of entries, presumably (although that in itself is of course a problem) written by people who know something about the topic. But just as we wouldn’t expect academics to cite the Encyclopaedia Britannica, because its target audience is not academics in a certain field but the general public wanting a brief introduction to a range of topics, so we rarely find academics citing from Wikipedia. There are of course some more specific encyclopaedias aimed specifically at certain academic audiences, where the question of being an ‘academic source’ has different considerations, but Wikipedia is not one of these. No matter how good, an encyclopaedia is not necessarily the best source for academic writing; it can’t substitute for reading the original research and discussion publications in the field.

–  it (usually) presents things as fact:

One of the fundamental bases of academia is that published academic sources are basically all arguments, i.e. the authors are arguing in favour of their approach/view/procedure/findings/etc. As text-books and encyclopaedias are generally expected to do, Wikipedia presents ‘neutral’ (well, ish) overviews or summaries of topics, which are often presented as fact, but which are arguably always an interpretation of the original arguments by the person who has written the overview or Wikipedia text. If an essay, or any piece of university work, is to engage in and contribute to academic discourse, it needs to demonstrate an analytical treatment of the previously published arguments, which can really only be achieved through a close, critical reading of the original sources, and not from an encyclopaedic overview.

– it lacks systematic review:

Academic publications are usually subject to some sort of editorial process or peer review by other experts in the field before they are printed or published. This is especially true of journal articles, where peer review aims to ensure that the most sound, best-quality research and scholarly inquiry is published. Now, you could argue that this quality control is given in Wikipedia, as other users edit articles to remove ‘incorrect’ information. The problem is rather that we can never be sure whether the version of the article we are reading has been written and reviewed by an expert in the field – and that is a fundamental criterion for a source to be considered as academic.

it lacks attribution:

The ides in an academic source can be attributed to certain authors, and most academics would agree that the value of uncredited information is rather dubious. Since there is no named author of a Wikipedia article, it doesn’t fulfil the criteria of an academic source. That said, most Wikipedia articles do a good job of citing their sources and linking to further reading (actually, quite an academic quality for an encyclopaedia; praise where it’s due!), and so can provide a wealth of resources that are more suitable for academic writing.

It therefore comes down to not WHETHER Wikipedia can/should be used, but HOW it should be used. People need to understand what Wikipedia IS, and then make informed decisions about how to use it for their work. In my view, a ‘ban’ does not lead to a full understanding of the points I’ve made here (and probably ineffective anyway, since students will probably continue to use Wikipedia, uncritically, despite any ban!). Wikipedia can/should be used as what it is: an encyclopaedia. Encyclopaedias, just like text-books, can function as a starting point when someone is researching a topic new to them; they can provide a good place to start finding the key debates or latest research and ideas in the field.

And yes, I think it is OK for an academic essay to cite from Wikipedia, if there is a justified reason for doing so, and if the author does so in full understanding of the points above. This may not yet be particularly common in published academic articles, but it is not unheard of. But it is important to remember, though, that Wikipedia should  not be cited as an academic source, but perhaps used for background information or a rationale for discussing the topic. Just as dictionary definitions can be used to delimit the scope or approach to a certain topic (e.g. ‘aggression’ – are we including in our definition and essay only verbal, or also physical aggression?), so Wikipedia, and perhaps more interestingly the edits, can be used to demonstrate the actuality, relevance, and/or controversial nature of the essay’s topic. The fact remains, though, that it is not an academic source in our general understanding of the term and its usage in academic work should be limited accordingly. 



This website provides a great demonstration of things to look for in an academic source before deeming it suitable for scholarly work: “Anatomy of a scholarly Article”

For more discussions on Wikipedia and other ‘myths’ surrounding EAP, see here: “20 Myths about EAP”


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