Wikipedia: Ready reference vs. Research literature

Originally posted at, the now-discontinued blog of the OU History of Science Collections. Neither this post nor any of its content should be taken as an official communication of the University of Oklahoma.

Why do we use Wikipedia? Should you?

In this blog and elsewhere I frequently link to Wikipedia for background information on an author or topic in the history of science. This practice is subject to some controversy, at least in certain classrooms and academic institutions. (On this website, I mark links to external websites with a special icon () to distinguish them from OU links.)

To explain why I use Wikipedia so frequently, let’s begin by distinguishing between sources appropriate for original research and the use of Wikipedia as a ready reference.

First, external links should not be taken as an endorsement of the content you find at Wikipedia or any other external website. Wikipedia articles are of markedly uneven quality, and even when Wikipedia is at its best, there is a difference between setting context with background knowledge (where a general, non-professional source like Wikipedia is appropriate) and conducting actual research in the history of science. For the latter, reliable professional secondary sources are required such as you will find with the aid of reference works like the Isis Bibliography for the History of Science, the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, and other reference resources. We link to Wikipedia for background knowledge; we will point you to reliable professional sources when you are doing research.

Undergraduate students: Be aware of the following deficiencies in Wikipedia:

  • Because articles are not signed, the qualifications of writers are unknown.
  • Because Wikipedia allows no original research, articles contain a preponderance of factoids and lack rigorous interpretative context.

These two deficiencies cause many professors to prohibit its use for research purposes.

After 16 OU students turned in final papers for the Spring 2006 semester that were plagiarized from Wikipedia, OU Assistant Provost Greg Heiser cautioned that “the problem with using Wikipedia for research papers is that it stunts a student’s ability to do research. ‘Doing good research is hard, but it is an important skill to master…. It’s almost like thinking you know how to cook because you can get to the nearest McDonald’s.” (Gene Perry and Jarrel Wade, OU Daily, August 31, 2006.)

In a daily newspaper, you expect the articles to present the facts. When you want analysis, you turn to the Editorial and Opinion pages where contributions are signed by known writers who take responsibility for their views. Think of articles from encylopedias like Wikipedia as the former. Original research is like the latter.

Again, most professors will not count articles in Wikipedia as reliable sources for assigned class research papers, for two reasons:

1. Articles that fail to provide author names provide no way of assuring responsibility nor of confirming that the writer possesses direct, first-hand knowledge of the primary sources. In contrast, Wikipedia articles may have been written by someone with far less knowledge than the average student in your classes this semester. Keep in mind as you read any particular article that it might have been written by someone you knew as a not-very-conscientious classmate back in Middle School. Anyone may contribute to Wikipedia; no special qualifications are required other than a self-confidence that may or may not be warranted. Articles may be written by people with little or no expertise. And even when articles are accurate they may not be balanced: some contributors may write with passion for a particular point of view that may not reflect a general consensus of professional opinion.

2. Take to heart the factoid character of Wikipedia, due to the lack of the most current interpretative contexts. This deficiency is due to Wikipedia’s editorial policy of allowing no original research. This is not a criticism of Wikipedia so much as a clear statement of its aim, which should be respected. Wikipedia is not intended to answer every question for every purpose. What this boils down to is that Wikipedia will be of greatest use when you’re looking up matters of fact, on which a consensus among anonymous contributors is easily reached (for example, “In which years did George Washington serve as President?” or “What are the differences between the 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, and 802.11n wi fi specifications?”). On the other hand, Wikipedia is ill-suited to resolve more complex, perspective-dependent questions, particularly those for which definitive answers do not exist and on which an assorted collection of anonymous authors are not likely to agree (e.g., “What were Theories of the Earth?” or “What was the origin of Greek science?”). In the latter case, Wikipedia articles offer, at best, dispassionate summaries of almost up-to-date interpretations. See this illuminating report of how difficult it can be to revise Wikipedia according to current scholarship: Timothy Messer-Kruse, “The Undue Weight of Truth,”, The Chronicle of Higher Education (February 12, 2012).

Wikipedia remains useful for obtaining general background information as a springboard for research (it is not a substitute for research). It is easily accessible, and often the most informative ready reference on the web. Consult it to get your bearings, but then guide your actual research by relying upon the professional literature. Go beyond where Wikipedia leaves off. At a bare minimum, independently verify anything you use from Wikipedia. And as always, if you use it, cite it.

Graduate students: You’re well aware of Wikipedia’s problems with inaccuracy, one-sidedness, and outdated perspectives, so when you see pages that are grievously misleading, why not invest a little of your time trying to improve them? And why not make it a group project with your friends or a class project with a professor? Why not incorporate group activities to improve Wikipedia into class assignments for undergraduates? If you show your students how to leave their mark on Wikipedia, you will inspire them to change the world.


  1. What is plagiarism? Do you think it’s easier to inadvertently plagiarize from Wikipedia than from printed sources? If so, why?
  2. “He says that research is like an Editorial or Opinion page! That’s odd!” How would you reply?
  3. Which limitations of Wikipedia affect your research most?
  4. What editorial policy of Wikipedia guarantees that you can always find some other source to use instead?
  5. Read the article by Messer-Kruse at The Chronicle of Higher Education. How does it illustrate some of the weaknesses of Wikipedia’s editorial policies when it comes to using Wikipedia as a source for basic research in the humanities?

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