Why Wikipedia should be a quotable source

and why it won’t be for a quite a while…

The most annoying thing when you are writing a scientific or research paper is that you are not allowed to quote Wikipedia. And while writing my Bachelor’s thesis I was (and still am) confronted with this problem quite often.

Looking at Wikipedia to get a general understanding of what whatever I am looking for is has become some kind of second nature for me. And in most situation it was enough to satisfy my curiosity or even end a discussion with the proof needed for a point. Wikipedia is a great source for free knowledge that I’d seriously miss if it was ever shut down. Clever people sit down and write (in most cases) wonderfully understandable articles that combine so many thoughts and view points that it would be a shame if you didn’t use it.

But in a paper you can’t.

I don’t know what it’s like in other countries but in Germany it is looked down upon if  you use Wikipedia as information source for a scientific paper. In school teachers would scold you if you simply copied and pasted stuff from Wikipedia, but they would at least accept it if you took information from there and formulated it in your own words. One of the first things you learn about quoting in university, however, is: Never quote Wikipedia.

But why is that? Why can’t we simply use these great roundups for certain topics that are provided to us for free?

From an objective point of view this becomes apparent quite soon.

#1 EVERYONE (with access) can edit articles on Wikipedia

This is probably the most problematic reason for disregarding Wikipedia as a proper source.
The one writing the article can be an expert in the field he is writing about, but he can also be someone who just wants to mess with people or thinks he has an idea of what he is doing, but in reality doesn’t know a thing.
With aliases and everything you never really know who actually wrote it and you also can’t properly pin an author to what was written.
Therefore you can never be certain if what is written there does really represent the truth.
And because

#2 Articles do not quote properly

you can’t even prove it. This is not always the case and many articles have an information that says that points in the article aren’t properly quoted, but still. Without proper references to the original sources you can’t draw your own conclusions, like the author did for writing the article.
With no proper background for conclusions and explanations they are considered to be wrong. (For finding a truth value in a statement this would be different, but that’s beside the point.)
For a paper it would be more helpful to be able to look – and quote – the original sources, but if the roundup doesn’t provide those that is not an option. To make my own decisions I look into other opinions – in this case other sources – so I can use both things as reference.
And what if an author researched something and no one ever heard about it, because there is no official paper on it, just a seemingly wrong paragraph in an Wikipedia article? We wouldn’t know it and another editor would simply delete it.

#3 Articles can always be changed

When an article is written it is not written in stone, it is rather written on a chalk board. You can wipe away what you deem wrong and add your correction. If it is an old board you might even be able to see what stood there earlier, like what you can do with the page history. This makes it hard to pinpoint a version of the article you could use in a proper quote. As far as I know it is a common practice to include printed versions (at least PDF versions) of websites for references, but with an ever changing source like Wikipedia this is always a bit tricky.

Those three things can be summed up into:

#4 Formulating a source is complicated

A proper quote for a paper includes: Author, Release Date, Name of the Source and an URL.
While the name and the URL are easy to find, the others are not so much.
It is not really clear who should be credited as author. The one who generated the page? The one who wrote the most part of it? The one who edited it last? I’d say the one who wrote the most, but I certainly don’t want to look through the whole history to find out who that was. To be save you might even include a “Last edited by”, but you still only have user names and no proper authors.
Same goes for the Release Date. For an ever changing article like this the date the page was created can’t be seen as Release Date. It makes more sense to use the date the current version was released as reference for that. But what if it changes tomorrow again and you don’t look because you have your source? Well, then you better make it safe and add another date that says when you last looked at the source or made the print version.
You certainly can find a way to quote it, but it’s not really a satisfying way.

There are most likely way more points to this than I can currently think of, but I am going to leave it at that.

To turn Wikipedia into something quotable a lot of things would have to change.
Author’s would have to be marked as main author and editors.
Articles need way more references to underline their points.
Versions would have to be declared as quotable (acknowledged by experts, etc.).
And so forth.

There have been many discussion regarding this topic and there will be a lot more until we find a proper solution for this.
But from my personal point of view it would be a really useful help to be able to use the roundup as your source and as reference to other media.

Until then I need to search for other sources that I can properly quote and use as reference for my thesis (and only use “Wiki” to find them😉 ).

PoiSonPaiNter

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