Citation, Documentation of Sources

Q. Recently the New York Times published an opinion piece by Mary Mann, a librarian and writer. In it she wrote, “In the past I’ve had to remind student patrons that you can’t cite Wikipedia on research papers.” Is that still the case?

A. Wikipedia, like any encyclopedia, is a tertiary source. A tertiary source synthesizes information in secondary sources to provide a summary for general readers about a topic. Secondary sources would include something like an article in a literary journal that analyzes the parallels between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey. Ulysses and the Odyssey, in turn, are primary sources. Secondary and tertiary sources also usually refer to other secondary and tertiary sources in support of their own arguments.

So whenever you cite Wikipedia, you are citing a summary of mostly secondary (and some tertiary) sources on a topic. And for many readers, this thirdhand evidence won’t be enough to prove your point.

Summaries are incredibly useful, as the popularity of Wikipedia attests. They save us the trouble of doing our own research. For example, when something happens to a celebrity, or you need a historical overview of the Macintosh computer or a sense of the emerging consensus over climate change, start with Wikipedia. You can even tell your cousin what Wikipedia said about So-and-So’s untimely passing. But don’t write a paper that cites Wikipedia citing the New York Times and five other sources quoting the late actor’s rep saying it was due to “natural causes.” Your responsibility as a researcher is the same as Wikipedia’s: you must discover the facts for yourself—and prove them by citing them.

The good news is that you don’t have to credit Wikipedia if you use it to get leads on a subject. Wikipedia’s own source citations (and source citations in general) are a gift that anyone can follow.

Not that you can never cite Wikipedia. You can—for example, in a research paper that tracks gender bias in Wikipedia articles. But if you’re turning to Wikipedia in search of the truth, pay attention to the sources cited in its articles. Those, and not Wikipedia itself, are where the information comes from. Meanwhile, if you find something wrong in Wikipedia’s page on Sichuan peppers? Follow Mary Mann’s example and fix it yourself. Don’t forget to cite your sources.