Wikipedia as a source

Yale Daily News ran a story on Wednesday, “Profs question students’ Wikipedia dependency“. I guess it’s a disturbing sign that I thought angry and vindictive thoughts about the student, freshman John Behan, who created a number of fake articles. I used to think that kind of thing was funny, and I feel like I should still (in principle, at least; Behan’s work didn’t even rise to the level of BJAODN). The article focuses on one fake in particular, “emysphilia” (turtle fetish). But as it turns out, emysphilia (Behan’s “most successful” article) was deleted rather quickly; its only traction came from syndication on It’s unclear whether anyone besides people with direct knowledge of the hoax and the Wikipedians voting to delete it even read the article; it’s not something one would just run into on without searching for the non-existent term.

The YDN article goes on with some quotes from professors about how Wikipedia is not an acceptable academic source. The headline for the page 6 continuation is “Inaccuracies make Wikipedia an unreliable academic source”, which is a pretty mediocre summary of what the faculty actual say about the subject. One prof makes reference to the “rigorous editing standards of hard copy sources”, compared to an anecdote about a Wikipedia article (with accurate, referenced information) giving the wrong first name (James Boswell instead of John Boswell) for a source. Unfortunately, the professor failed to take any action; I just tracked down the article I presume he was referring to, which it took 5 seconds to correct. (I have my own share of anecdotes about contradictions between a hard copy scholarly source and WP where it’s the hard copy that is wrong, but I digress.)

Like most stories about Wikipedia as an academic source, the Yale story misses the point. Another professor hits on the legitimate basis for excluding Wikipedia as an academic source: it’s an encyclopedia. 5 years from now, Wikipedia is going to be more accurate than any general print encyclopedia (at least on topics that traditional encyclopedias actually cover). And for random contradictions between a book source and a referenced Wikipedia article, Wikipedia will be the correct one more often than not. But it still won’t be an acceptable academic source, except perhaps as a place to point readers for peripheral background information. Because it will still be a tertiary source.

This issue has been in the news a lot since the Middlebury College Wikipedia ban and the Chronicle of Higher Education story on it.

Here’s a similar blog post about the issue, from a clear-headed historian.

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