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Should the use of Wikipedia articles as source material be discouraged?

I do not take it that such articles are appropriate sources and my opinion is that citing them is a bad practice. Thoughts?

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    You might like to post an answer to this question, to explain why you take it that it's bad practice. – ChrisW Aug 17 '15 at 18:47
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I personally have no problem with wiki links. I think that Wikipedia is pretty authorative. There is some research that says that it has about as many factual errors as the Encyclopedia Britannica. It's a hugely visible site and its vigorously community edited. I would be much less happy with an answer that relies on a quote from an obscure blog somewhere. That could be just a really outlying opinion from someone with a very particular perspective.

My only issue is when a question can be answered with one wiki link which really gives OP everything they need. But then that's a problem in the question rather than the answer.

As ever, just my opinion

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Only my opinion stated here of course, not an absolute position:

As already stated,

Any encyclopedia is a starting point for research, not an ending point. Wikipedia despite it's obvious susceptibility to mistakes is increasingly considered good enough evidence by many journalists, policy makers and researchers. Though not suitable as a primary source when writing a research paper, several research papers increasingly lean on Wikipedia as a tertiary source.

I can't say I prefer Wikipedia to an original source, or the other way round either. I tend to use whatever's apt for my answers.

When an answer draws from several sources and develops an overarching position, linking to Wikipedia makes more sense to me than citing 20 different extracts. This has the benefit of appealing to most readers who value brevity while still remaining a valid source of more information for readers who would like to dig deeper. I suspect the small portion of Wikipedia that deals with Buddhism is far less likely to fall prey to vandalism than the rest of Wikipedia, and the submissions are usually of a far higher quality.

Voltaire, Confucius, Aristotle and several other classical philosophers have uttered a variation on the phrase "perfect is the enemy of good". The Buddha is also very pragmatic like this, I am reminded of the second arrow sutta where he recommends treating the arrow wound than searching to find the shooter.

Better to have more answers that can be superseded by better answers in the future, than no answers at all while waiting for the perfect answer.


What are the alternatives to Wikipedia? Certainly peer reviewed journals are no guarantee of quality if one reads what is being written about them by people who ought to know better than anyone.

“The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.” Dr. Richard Horton, Editor-in-chief, Lancet

“It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of the New England Journal of Medicine” Dr. Marcia Angell, a physician and longtime Editor in Chief of the New England Journal of Medicine

"It can be proven that most claimed research findings are false" (source) (Dr. John Ioannidis, Professor, Stanford School of Medicine)

"Too many of the findings that fill the academic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis" How science goes wrong | The Economist

"...we have little evidence on the effectiveness of peer review, but we have considerable evidence on its defects..."Peer review: a flawed process at the heart of science...

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I suggest these guidelines:

  1. Wikipedia is often not the best reference; I think I cite Wikipedia frequently but not usually (i.e. more often than not, my answers instead cite a different reference).
  2. An answer should never be only a reference to Wikipedia, and nothing else.

I'm looking at my answer to this question as an example of how I have used Wikipedia.

  1. If you reference Wikipedia (or indeed any other reference) then prefer to also quote a bit from the reference. People shouldn't need to read the reference in order to understand your answer (the reference should be a supplement to your answer). So, for example:

    • I wanted to mention the "Parable of the burning house" in my answer
    • I wasn't sure whether the OP would know the parable I was mentioning, so I wanted to include a link to further information
    • Wikipedia is convenient because it tells the parable and embeds it in an article which introduces upaya (skillful means).
  2. If you reference Wikipedia (or any other reference) then explain why that reference is an answer to the OP's question (because the link between the reference and the question might not be obvious).

  3. I often use Wikipedia whenever I want to define some vocabulary I use in my answer. For example I wanted to use the term "lie-to-children"; that's not a standard term so I included a hyperlink to explain it. If I Google for that phrase I find Wikipedia at the top of the search results, so embedding the link in my answer is a convenience to the reader.
  4. Read the article you're referencing. Don't reference it if you don't agree with it, i.e. if it's not what you want to say.
  5. My third reference to Wikipedia in that answer ("Some lineages also apparently have secrets...") was because that (alleged) fact is relevant to the answer, however Wikipedia is the only place where I've read that (and so Wikipedia is the only reference I have for that sentence). It's not a very good reference, but I hoped it's good enough to include as the third reference/article in an answer.

I know that Wikipedia has some problems (e.g. that it be edited at any time). Perhaps you wouldn't want to reference it in an scholarly answer (I'm not able to write scholarly answers and don't try to answer questions which seem to me to require a scholarly answer).

In summary I like to reference Wikipedia sometimes.

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Back when i was a student we were not allowed to use Wikipedia as a source in our assignments and projects. The reason that was given was that it was not reliable since everyone could post and edit articles on Wiki. Some users might not have the necessary skills to ensure that the content is of a certain validity and quality.

I think that if one is aware of this and has a critical approach to it then the Wiki can be used as a source. As all other text material it should not be trusted blindly.

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Before citing any source as authoritative, one really ought to evaluate it to establish that it is authoritative. In fact this seldom happens, especially amongst non-scholars because people are often lazy about facts and unqualified to do the assessment anyway.

Wikipedia is a very mixed resource still. They have attempted to improve the rigour, but many of the Buddhism articles are still sectarian and parochial, if not actually misleading. Unfortunate many Wiki authors (and I am one) do not vet their own sources before citing them. So the problem is compounded.

"Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts." - Richard Feynman.
What is Science? The Physics Teacher. Vol. 7, issue 6 (1969).

Even experts make mistakes or get things wrong. We should be cautious about whose opinion we take on face value.

I sometimes cite Wiki articles in writing for my blog when I want to offer readers a quick and dirty introduction to a concept I think might be new to them. I generally have a read of it first and have a sense of how accurate it is. I would never cite Wikipedia in writing for publication.

For a website like this I would only cite a Wikipedia article I knew to be particular good and/or authoritative. I think we have to assume that those seeking answers can use Google and easily find Wikipedia. I would prefer to offer something a little more substantial (unless of course I wrote the Wikipedia article or had been heavily involved in editing it).

The Process of Peer Review

There seems to be some confusion about the process of peer review, including amongst journal editors, so I'm adding a note to address this. I have had eight articles peer reviewed and published, and have been reviewer on three articles by others. It works slightly differently in different disciplines - the process in science and medicine is different than that for Buddhist studies (which is most relevant here). Broadly speaking, peer review tries to ensure that the methods used in a research project were sound and that the logic of the conclusions is clear and clearly related to the data presented.

What peer review cannot do is ensure that an article is "correct". Research is dependent on many factors which may introduce errors. A researcher endeavours to eliminate error through rigorous experimental design. A peer review may weed out obviously flawed methods, but it cannot account for more subtle flaws because these only become evident in attempts to repeat the experiment. A reviewer is not in a position to repeat the experiment - they can only read the article and point out logical flaws in the writing. It is up to the scientific community to try to repeat the experiment and report their findings. Results that can be repeated gain credibility. Theories which accurately predict results may survive and prosper; methods which produce new kinds of information may spread. This process typically takes decades to show results! Sometimes meta studies which give an overview of research in a field over a period of time can give a better idea than any single article reporting on experimental research.

A reviewer of a Buddhist Studies article may critique translations, ask for clarification of certain points, and point out sources of information the author has missed. And most importantly they look for flaws in the logic of argument, for passages of writing that are unclear, and for assertions that are not substantiated. They will also try to assess whether the article makes a substantial contribution to the field.

Peer review helps to ensure high standards in the procedures followed by scholars. They cannot guarantee the "truth" of articles. And of course peer review is reliant on people who operate at less than 100% efficiency. Lay people often make the mistake of thinking that peer review guarantees the quality of the conclusions. To some extent science journalists have promoted a false view of research by highlighting odd reports that have yet to be replicated. That is an abuse of the scientific process.

Every source must be evaluated before being cited as an authority, including all peer reviewed research. If one is not in a position to evaluate the claims, then one ought not to cite it. It's a matter of knowing one's limitations and the limitations of other people.

My most recent article was turned down flat by the first journal I submitted it to. Simply not good enough. I submitted exactly the same manuscript to another journal and got lucky with the reviewer who recognised the importance of my work and took the time to show me how to get the article to the standard required by academia. I rewrote and it was published. In this article I identified a long standing grammatical error in the standard Sanskrit edition of the Heart Sutra, which is widely considered the most popular Mahāyāna text. Edward Conze, editor of the Sanskrit text, is generally held in high esteem and is often cited as an authority not only as a translator of these texts, but also as an editor of Sanskrit texts. And he made a simple and very obvious grammatical error that went unnoticed for almost 60 years. An error that substantially affected how the text could be understood and translated. So that all translations from Sanskrit of the Heart Sutra in the last 60 years (at least) are in fact faulty.

There is no such thing as an impeccable source in Buddhism. Everything must be checked. Everything.

Those who are pessimistic about science ought to read: Science isn't Broken.

  • One issue with Wikipedia is that it is a moving target. Citing it is like citing the weather, because it is constantly being altered, hopefully for the better, but the wording you relied on when citing might be different now. That goes for use in posts here too, but the timescale is shorter than an academic publication. Will Wikipedia exist to even be wrong in 60 years? In 20 years? Will the Internet? We are "writing on water", here. – user2341 Jan 5 '16 at 23:28

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