Wikipedia as an academic source

Brett over at Sound and Fury needs our moral support. He’s been informed by a colleague that he has a reputation among students as “the guy that fails folks for using Wikipedia”, and now wonders whether he is doing the right thing.

I think Brett’s right, and hey, he should be proud of his reputation! I tell students not to use Wikipedia as a source in their essays too. I have had discussions about this in class with students who felt that it would be cheating not to acknowledge that they went to Wikipedia for inspiration first. They admit they use Wikipedia because it is accessible and easy to read. I admit I often use it, too — when I want to know what on earth fan fiction is, for example.

When I was a student and Wikipedia did not yet exist, I guess the equivalent was the encyclopedia that sat in a bookcase in my parents’ living room. I used it, sometimes, to look things up; sometimes even to serendipitously leaf through the Ce-Dr volume (I admit it — I should have had better things to do on my weekends). But I never used it as a source in my essays. An encyclopedia just isn’t an academic source. Nor does it become one when it goes online and grows into a collaborative effort.

Anyone can go onto the internet and find Wikipedia. Students should know their way around bibliographies, databases, libraries. That is one of the skills they are taught, and one of the skills that future employers will expect them to have mastered. That is what I tell my students.

In my next discussion in class, I am definitely going to cite these words of Wikipedia’s founder.


  • Interestingly, Wikipedia itself has an entry that lists academic publications that use Wikipedia as a source. They claim they did not include academic studies of Wikipedia.
  • Blogging the Renaissance did some random Wiki-testing last year.
  • Early Modern Notes was there first, as always.

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