Wikipedia might be a reliable source, surely.
February 18, 2011 8:21 PM   Subscribe

Help me agitate my course facilitator and change his opinion of wikipedia: What are some wikipedia pages that are edited by authoritative professionals or recognized field experts?
posted by boo_radley to Education (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe a derail, but I've always used Wikipedia as a secondary source, pointing me to many of the primary sources I wind up actually citing in my research papers. It's possible you could still use it in this way.
posted by joshuaconner at 8:33 PM on February 18, 2011 [13 favorites]

Such a list might exist or could maybe be pulled up, but respectfully I don't think it would meet your end goal of changing the facilitator's mind.

This argument is essentially saying "I accept that expert editing is required for high quality, and acknowledge that Wikipedia does not guarantee it, but because it is sometimes present in the following pages, we should accept Wikipedia as a source". Not convincing.

A better argument to attempt is that the collaborative editing process (which is explicitly not based on expert editing) produces articles of reliability comparable to other acceptable sources. See here and here for a start.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:34 PM on February 18, 2011 [6 favorites]

Even if you find a sampling of pages that are all correct (there are surely many of these at any given time) or where some expert is involved in the editing, that's not a good reason to believe that Wikipedia in general is as reliable as an authoritative reference published the old way.

Wikipedia is pretty good for a lot of things, and it's a great starting point to find more references, to get a general sense of a topic, etc. But it's not going to be authoritative in the way a book with a single expert editor, or a journal article subject to peer review by other experts, can be -- unless it ends up replicating those kinds of structures itself (allowing only certified experts to have final say over what's accepted as "true" for the purpose of the encyclopedia; then deciding what credentials count as certifying an expert, and how to verify the credentials etc).

Even those old processes of certification can break down sometimes (eg, expert editors can get things wrong, peer review by established experts tends to delay truly revolutionary ideas from being accepted even if they are true, etc). And of course, in old media publishing, you often don't have the most-expert person as editor, or you have an editor with particular blind spots or allegiances that interfere with producing a perfect text. If you want to build a critique of the old procedures for certifying information as authoritative, those are the kinds of things you'd want to look at.

But hasn't Wikipedia come out against certain kinds of experts being involved in editing, because they are "too close" to the topics?
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:24 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another tack you might try would be to say - for some domains of knowledge, the old basically university-centric way of certifying knowledge works best. Examples might include: translations of ancient languages, current developments in high-level physics, etc.

But for other domains, the old way is worse and the Wikipedia way is better. Examples of these might include: the storyline of the extended Doctor Who universe, recent developments in Japanese fashion subcultures, etc.

In getting ready to talk to your supervisor, you might think about what makes some domains of knowledge better addressed by one method and others by the other.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:30 PM on February 18, 2011

Besides, an expert article could easily be altered at any time by writers with less expertise. I doubt you'll be able to find many experts who are pleased with the way their contributions to Wikipedia have been treated.
posted by twblalock at 9:32 PM on February 18, 2011

It doesn't matter what pages "are edited by authoritative professionals or recognized field experts". They can be re-editied by any twit with an axe to grind, and if said twit is friends with a moderator, or god forbid is one, you get whatever rubbish they want to shove in the entry. The litany of examples of this happening are legion; your "course facilitator" is right.

That said, what @LobsterMitten said.
posted by kjs3 at 9:41 PM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

There has been an ongoing debate about the roles of experts in Wikipedia; maybe that's old news to you, and I certainly don't know what the current state of the internal debate within the Wikipedia community is. This Slashdot post on Experts and Wikipedia links to a few sources about this debate that might be useful.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:49 PM on February 18, 2011

The journal RNA Biology requires authors submitting to their RNA Families track to also provide a Wikipedia page. This requirement is still in place two years later.
posted by grouse at 9:50 PM on February 18, 2011

Well, I get where you're coming from, and I'll explain myself a bit better and give a little context. Here's the warning from the syllabus:, etc. are not reliable sources of information and shouldn't be used as references. Use reliable web sources like, etc.

So, the issue I have -- that I didn't explain -- is that informationweek and networkworld are for-profit and have a rather focussed view on products and services that advertise in the magazine. My position is that op/eds (and reviews to a lesser extent) in these two magazines aren't useful as disinterested expert sources. The line between acceptable sources is arbitrary, and yes it is the university's course and they can choose whatever -- but if the suggestion is that we use reliable sources, it ought to be professional journals rather than business news oriented tech mags. I hope that clarifies a bit.
posted by boo_radley at 10:03 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think that would be an excellent point to bring up to your instructor.

A lot of profs have to give instructions like that now because students are inclined to submit a "research paper" which is either completely unattributed, or which cites only Wikipedia as a source. So part of what profs have to do is explain why it matters what your sources are, and talk about the types of vetting and fact-checking and editorial policies and conflict-of-interest rules etc that go into making a reliable source. It sounds like your prof is only doing half the job! Maybe he/she doesn't realize what's going on in the background of those sites, and it would be useful to mention this privately (email, after class, or during office hours) so he/she can think about revisiting the policy on sources.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:33 PM on February 18, 2011

Oh, wait, are you saying those sites are (a) purely advertising, or (b) functioning as most print magazines do, with a wall of some type between editorial content and advertising, but a wall that is often lower than we would like? If it's (a), the prof may not realize it - definitely tell them! If it's (b), that's a good occasion for a discussion about which things you can trust and which you can't from those kinds of publications.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:38 PM on February 18, 2011

Since no one has pointed this out yet, I'm not sure if I'm stepping into something wrong here, but...

Wikipedia articles will frequently cite references. For popular articles, this can often go upto multiple references per sentence (the little footnote numbers at the end of sentences). These references lead to third-party sites with the given information. IIRC, it is Wikipedia policy to require every fact have an external, reliable reference with an active link.

Also IIRC, Jimmy Wales said that he does not intend Wikipedia to be used as a reference itself, but more as a primer to topics and a general-use encyclopedia. Use the external links, references etc. This is partly because of the volatile/potentially-inaccurate nature of Wikipedia, but also because it's just an encylopedia and not a guide to everything in the world (which it seems to be, more often than not).

But since this won't help your argument with the course facilitator, I suppose you could tell him about the references, and how it would be appropriate to use Wikipedia as a reference provided the given text in turn, references a reliable source. Of course, one would then wonder why do that instead of citing the source references directly...
posted by Senza Volto at 10:48 PM on February 18, 2011

Wikipedia is, in some ways, anti-expert, in that who does the editing and more specifically, who they are, doesn't matter.

This can be surprising to new editors who may have great experience in an area, and may expect that to translate into their edits being treated as better or more reliable than some schlub who is coming from a random IP address. But that is (largely) not the case. The fact that someone is or is not an expert has no bearing on whether their edits are kept. It's (for the most part) the quality of the edit and the citations (or potential of citations) in support of that edit.

I am handwaving past things like controversial articles and editors with axes to grind, but your prof is right, Wikipedia is not an 'expert' edited reference, in that you really can't say "here's this article, and this expert edited it and stands behind it."

You may ask why this is the case, when experts clearly have much to bring, and I think it's to keep ego-wards and feelings of ownership over articles to a minimum.
posted by zippy at 11:11 PM on February 18, 2011

Use reliable web sources like, etc.

Factual information reported in those two examples would almost certainly be accepted by Wikipedia's own identifying reliable sources guideline.

Despite thinking Wikipedia is a great resource myself, you should generally not cite it as a reference in preparing other written material, especially in academia.
posted by grouse at 11:33 PM on February 18, 2011

Despite thinking Wikipedia is a great resource myself, you should generally not cite it as a reference in preparing other written material, especially in academia.

Or, you know, any other encyclopedia or similar tertiary source, unless you're using it as a primary source (IE writing a paper on Wikipedia).
posted by NoraReed at 11:55 PM on February 18, 2011

twblalock: "Besides, an expert article could easily be altered at any time by writers with less expertise. I doubt you'll be able to find many experts who are pleased with the way their contributions to Wikipedia have been treated."

Along with this issue, you could get two "experts" with differing points of view fighting over the page.

Wikipedia also has a policy against users who think they "own" a page and seem too possessive of an article, so experts have to let others edit the pages as well and not get too fighty over it. Back when I was a regular Wikipedia editor, for example, I came across the Judge Judy article and found it to have absolutely horrid grammar and spelling. I spent about 2 hours cleaning it up only to have a user who felt he owned the article come in and revert all my edits, saying "I had this page looking good until you showed up!" I complained to whoever takes care of those complaints (mods, admins, bureaucrats, whatever) and the guy was overruled on the grounds that it wasn't "his" article.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:07 AM on February 19, 2011

Carrying on from what seems to be a developing consensus above, I think you instructor already knows that wikipedia is a useful source and probably uses it all of the time. Hell, I used wikipedia as a starting point to prepare for a huge number of seminars and lectures I gave - it was the best way to quickly find an overview of any given topic.

When I taught at universities, I had the exact same disclaimer in place even though, personally, I used wikipedia all the time. Here's why:
1 - wikipedia articles, even if really good, are often overviews of a topic and do not provide the depth required for academic research
2 - Since anyone can edit a page at any time, if I go chase up your reference I may or may not find the information I'm looking for (and I have absolutely no desire to go back through edit histories to do so). Even if you give me the date you accessed the page, I still might have to trawl through edits. And, if the information you gave me has been removed, I'm going to look at the reason it's been removed. If that reason is because the information was wrong, I may very well conclude that you cited false information.
3 - Sometimes, pages are just wrong. The peer review process is in place to ensure rigour and from stopping gross inaccuracies from appearing as fact.
4 - Relying *solely* on wikipedia (and not chasing up any of the footnotes) is just fricking lazy. It also means that you never really learn how to use important tools like archives, databases, etc.
posted by lumiere at 2:42 AM on February 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

The Journal Nature finds Wikipedia to be about the same as Encyclopaedia Britannica
posted by dougrayrankin at 3:02 AM on February 19, 2011

What sources are acceptable is largely a cultural phenomenon. Anyone who has ever been in the middle of an even knows when they then read how it is described in the NY Times (the paper of record) or, say, Time Magazine, will find many errors of fact, yet they will be considered OK as sources and wikipedia won't. Good luck changing anyone's mind about this.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:25 AM on February 19, 2011

Even Wikipedia doesn't consider Wikipedia to be a reliable source.
posted by goethean at 7:01 AM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I actually teach with Wikipedia the way joshuaconner describes. I know my students are keen to use it, so I show them how to use it well--by mining the footnotes for reliable sources and using those sources in their papers. But my students know that Wikipedia should never, ever appear on a works cited page for anything they submit for the class. You can make legitimate use of Wikipedia this way without resorting to agitation, and your "course facilitator" will be none the wiser.
posted by BlooPen at 7:38 AM on February 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I agree with NoraReed. Scholarly papers shouldn't be citing *any* encyclopedia, whether it's Wikipedia, Britannica, or World Book. I'm assuming Wikipedia was singled out in the syllabus because it's so popular and the students would be likely to use it unless told not to.
posted by LaurenIpsum at 8:45 AM on February 19, 2011

Encyclopedia articles -- Wikipedia or any of its professionally-edited predecessors or contemporaries -- have never been acceptable sources for college-level papers. For what it's worth, though, I often found undergraduate term paper prompts to ask one (essentially) to write the equivalent of a good encyclopedia article, i.e. a summary of the primary secondary soures, lightly enhanced by reading of very prominent primary sources.
posted by MattD at 8:52 AM on February 19, 2011

Or, what LaurenIpsum just said.
posted by MattD at 8:52 AM on February 19, 2011

Yes, I don't allow students to cite to encyclopedias, period, although I actively encourage them to read some background information on topics or ideas they're struggling with, and (for my discipline) Wikipedia is a fine jumping-off point for that. But it's an encyclopedia. You can't cite to those past grade school.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:33 AM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't use wikipedia for research for the same reason I wouldn't use Encyclipedia Britannica: general encyclopaedias are for little kids, checking names/dates and random interest They are always simplistic and out of date on analysis. (NB: I'm not talking about the scholarly reference works).

If you're in high school or university, you're old enough to go find a real source. A book, a journal article, a dataset, whatever. Some fields are okay with non-scholarly sources such as newspapers and magazines as secondary sources, but I find that weird. (Newspapers are great primary sources, of course).

So it doesn't matter whether Wikipedia is written by experts or not; it's like citing My big book of Weather in your meterology paper. Which is only allowed if it's your PhD and it's ironic.

What Eyebrows McGee said.
posted by jb at 10:51 AM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

So thanks everyone for your thoughts on wikipedia as a reliable source, it was a fun read.

Having said that, are there pages that are notable for being edited by experts in a particular field?
posted by boo_radley at 8:25 PM on February 19, 2011

I'm not sure you understand how Wikipedia works, honestly.

"Wikipedia does not grant additional powers or respect to subject-matter experts. Wikipedia does not have a process for determining (a) who is a bona-fide expert and on what subject(s), and (b) in which articles a given expert should edit. Given that many editors post pseudonymously, and that it may be difficult or impossible to verify the identity, credentials or experience of an editor who posts under his or her real name (or claims to do so), vetting users as experts is not practical." Link.

I've certainly edited pages in fields I'm fairly expert in, but it's not like you get to put your name on it (MCGEE SEAL OF APPROVAL, EDITED BY EXPERT MCGEE) and it's not like edits necessarily last very long. And how would anyone know, anyway, since Wikipedia doesn't verify credentials? I'm sure you could go through talk pages and find people CLAIMING to be experts, but claims of expertise on talk pages are sadly often from the craziest of crazypantses espousing theories on par with creationism and flat-Earth.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:54 PM on February 19, 2011

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