Who’s Afraid of Wikipedia?

Every year, at around this time, I start to come up against the Wikipedia Issue. It arises when essays become more demanding and people turn to online sources for help. So here are my thoughts for posterity – along with a reading list so that you can do your own research!


Many of us use Wikipedia as a quick and easy way of locating “facts”. We all know that we should head for a reputable academic source like (in the field of Classics) the Oxford Classical Dictionary: but locating the necessary information there takes more effort. So Wikipedia is often our first stop. Is that really a problem?


What’s wrong with referencing Wikipedia?

Imagine that you’ve gone to Wikipedia to find out about Tacitus, and you’ve found some really useful stuff. You want to use it in your essay, and to reference it properly (naturally!). So you write something like Tacitus’ style ‘has been both derided as “harsh, unpleasant, and thorny” and praised as “grave, concise, and pithily eloquent”’ (Wikipedia 2017). Then you include full details of the Wikipedia entry in your bibliography. Your referencing is fine, your approach is academic: so what’s wrong with this?

In many disciplines today, this would be acceptable; in Classics, less so. Perhaps it’s because our discipline is entirely concerned with sources. As classicists we’re not just interested in accuracy: we also focus on bias, motivation, cultural influences and a whole range of other analytical priorities. So your reader is going to raise her eyebrows and ask questions like: Who wrote this? What is their disciplinary background? Whom are they quoting? By referencing Wikipedia you lose some credibility, because the source can’t be attributed and analysed properly.


What’s wrong with using Wikipedia as a source of ideas?

In writing your hypothetical essay you may now have now decided against referencing Wikipedia or quoting from it directly: but you don’t see any real issue with using it as a source of references which you plan to follow up yourself. Maybe that is a bit sneaky, but it dodges the problem above. What could be wrong with that?

Not much, is the short answer: this is a sensible and cautious use of Wikipedia as a research tool, and it’s the approach which is often recommended by lecturers. But even here there are hazards, and it’s important to know what they are.

The main hazard is the editing process, and the editors themselves. Let me give you an example…

Those of you who have studied Ancient History will be very familiar with the topic of women in history: you may have made the point in your own essays that our primary sources were created predominantly by elite males, leaving other sections of society (the poor, slaves, women, etc.) under-represented in the historical evidence, whether literary or archaeological. For a long time Western scholarship was also dominated by elite white males, leading to a skewed perspective. Only in the last 50 years or so has this issue been addressed, with feminism and postcolonialism in particular attacking traditional assumptions, opening up new ways of seeing evidence, and seeking new evidence about neglected groups.

But back to Wikipedia – where history is repeating itself. Behind the scenes, the vast majority (usually estimated at around 90%) of editors are male, despite editathons and other initiatives to bring some balance to the controlling influences. This leads to bias in the selection of content: influential female figures in history and areas of traditionally female interest are often trivialised or cut out entirely. In some ways Wikipedia takes us back decades, to a time when a small number of men controlled the flow of information.

This is just one example of the ways in which the well-documented Editing Wars distort the content of Wikipedia. The important point is that if you draw your information and inspiration from Wikipedia, you’re following a path laid out for you by a group of anonymous people who have their own interests and their own agenda: and you may not even be aware of that fact.


Should I avoid Wikipedia?

No, not at all. Caution is required, of course, and awareness of bias and limitations – but the same could be said of any source. Don’t back off: instead, jump in! Where you spot a gap, a weakness or a bias in a Wikipedia entry, don’t be afraid to attempt your own edits. Editing Wikipedia is critical analysis in action, and it will teach you more about scholarship than any undergraduate course could do!


Cora Beth Knowles



Further reading

Baker, N. (2008) How I fell in love with Wikipedia, The Guardian: Tech, 10th April 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2008/apr/10/wikipedia.internet

Coomer, A (2013) Should university students use Wikipedia?, The Guardian: Students, 13th May 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/may/13/should-university-students-use-wikipedia

Peacock, T. (2015) Does academia have a place on Wikipedia? Concordia News Stories, http://www.concordia.ca/cunews/main/stories/2015/04/29/wikipedia-important-learning-tool.html

Poulter, M. (2014) 3 ways to use Wikipedia as an education tool, CILIP, The Library and Information Association https://www.cilip.org.uk/blog/3-ways-use-wikipedia-education-tool

Ridge, M. (2013) New challenges in digital history: sharing women’s history on Wikipedia, notes available online at http://openobjects.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/new-challenges-in-digital-history.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+OpenObjects/atom+(Open+Objects)

Wikipedia (2016) ‘Gender bias on Wikipedia’, Wikipedia, 10 February [Online]. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_bias_on_Wikipedia

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