Scholars citing Wikipedia: good, bad, or ugly?

A week or so ago, Joseph Kelly asked (on his Facebook page):

So I’m reading a volume from the LHBOTS, and the second article in it cites a Wikipedia page to orient readers to the general discussion of the topic (meta-ethics). I’ve also seen this author do this in his 2012 book published by SBL.

Any opinions out there about this?

The conversation pretty quickly veered off course into a back-and-forth between Angela Roskop Erisman and James McGrath about students’ use of Wikipedia, but I think Joseph’s original question deserves a bit more attention than it got. How should a scholar “orient readers to the general discussion of [a scholarly] topic”? Does Wikipedia have a salutary role to play in this endeavor?

My own, semi-informed opinion—and that’s all that Joseph asked for, not a research essay—is that scholarly authors pointing scholarly readers to Wikipedia is somewhat ill-advised. At the emotional level, scholarly authors who do this risk damaging their implicit relationships with those readers; they risk violating the implied social contract that requires authors to assume competence among peer readers. In my view, authors contributing (to) LHBOTS volumes should be able to assume sufficient levels of readerly competence to refer to signed, scholarly overviews of necessary topics instead. As a reader, I would almost feel insulted if I were sent to a Wikipedia article rather than a scholarly article.

In a different vein, and perhaps more importantly because it applies more broadly, I think that the volatility of Wikipedia articles poses significant hazards for any author who points any readers to Wikipedia. The content of a Wikipedia article could change overnight, resulting in a completely different experience for readers who follow the same author’s Wikipedia reference at different points in time. If I point readers to an Oxford Handbook or Routledge Companion or something along those lines, I can have maximal confidence that any two readers following my pointer will encounter the same sequence of sentences and paragraphs; I am not entitled to any such confidence with Wikipedia. Some texts are simply more persistent than others, and reference to the more persistent texts aids the continuity of scholarly discourse.

I suppose that a wikiphile might characterize my reservations as boiling down to pride and fear. That may be the case. However, if one can avoid activating readers’ affective filters (thus assuaging my “pride”) and ensure a stable genealogy of ideas and roster of partners in an ongoing asynchronous scholarly conversation (thus calming my “fear”), that seems like a good tradeoff against the risky convenience of Wikipedia citations.

What’s your opinion on this practice (not on Wikipedia generally, please), dear reader?

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  • http://desposyni.blogspot.com/ Matt Dowling

    Ugly (with caveats). “Ugly” in the sense that I can’t count how many times I’ve hear professors rip on students for this. In terms of “caveat”–some of the entries are quite good and are a great entry point into a subject. However, if as a researcher I cite Wikipedia instead of finding a suitable review article….this smacks of laziness.