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Is Wikipedia a Viable Source for College Papers?

Aug 18, 2007
As a college writing instructor, I can vouch that there are certain questions that come up again and again during the course of every writing class. Questions include:

When do I use "then" and when do I use "than"?
How do I write a good thesis statement?
Where do I put the page numbers?

Then there are more general questions, such as:

Do you always have to start class on time and end class on time?
Is there anyone else who teaches this course?
You're married. Really? You? (Often followed by a "That poor woman" muttered under their breath.)

But perhaps the most common question I get is whether Wikipedia, the ubiquitous online encyclopedia, can be used as a viable source for research papers. In response to this question, I try to explain how academic discourse works - I talk about accuracy, credibility, objectivity, peer-reviewing, and the like. Most of the time, students just stare at me blankly and say, "So... ah... is that a no?"

As such, I've been searching for a better response, one that I hope will finally put to rest this question, which has been lurking in the halls of academia and feeding on the unsuspecting brains of my students like a zombie from one of the old Simpson's Halloween Specials. At long last, I think I finally found the answer, which was provided by, of all people, the founder of Wikipedia.com, Jimmy Wales. To quote from The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Speaking at a conference at the University of Pennsylvania on Friday called "The Hyperlinked Society," Mr. Wales said that he gets about 10 e-mail messages a week from students who complain that Wikipedia has gotten them into academic hot water. "They say, 'Please help me. I got an F on my paper because I cited Wikipedia'" and the information turned out to be wrong, he says. But he said he has no sympathy for their plight, noting that he thinks to himself: "For God sake, you're in college; don't cite the encyclopedia."

Mr. Wales goes on to say that Wikipedia is good for getting a general overview for a subject but notes that academic papers should draw from real sources - you know, like the kind you find in the library.

There it is - straight from the horse's mouth - Wikipedia is not a viable source for college papers. Thus, I think it's finally time that students and educators accept the fact that serious academic discussions must be conducted in serious academic forums. Websites like Wikipedia simply cannot function as the means for conveying crucial information on scholarly topics.
About the Author
Benjamin Welch has been a college instructor in writing and composition for nearly six years. When he's not teaching or playing golf, he offers advice for students seeking information about online education and online degrees. Read more of Ben's work in our career and education blog. Also find career and education articles.
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