Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Writing 101: Wikipedia is Not a Source

If you want to be an author and you want to write amazing books, there's one thing you have to know and keep in mind at all times: Wikipedia is not a source. Really, that's all you need to know. But there are some people out there who are going to want to know why they can't use Wikipedia to research their stories. For those people, I'm writing this post.

Public Opinion

Wikipedia passes itself off as an encyclopedia, and it's incredibly attractive. You can type in almost any name, any book, any movie and learn more about it. I know this better than most, because I can go to Wikipedia and suddenly spend an entire hour checking up on sitcom stars from the 1950s (don't ask). It's full of links and there's a lot you can find out, and that's all amazing. But there's a fly in the ointment. Wikipedia is not all that it appears to be. And there's one strong reason that no writer can use Wikipedia as a source at any time: it's not accurate.

Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia, though I am willing to concede that it looks an awful lot like one. You see, true encyclopedias (Columbia, for example, or Encyclopedia Brittanica) have their facts checked -- repeatedly, and carefully. No one fact-checks Wikipedia. True encyclopedias hire academics and writers to deliver concise informaton about people, places and historical events. Wikipedia doesn't hire anyone to provide content. 

All of the content on Wikipedia is provided for free by ordinary people. True, some of those people are molecular biologists and historians. But some of them are 7th graders. Some of the people who create and edit entries for Wikipedia are PhDs who have studied extensively. Some of them are only on the website because Daniel Tosh told them to get on there and change something. Stephen Colbert once told people to change a page on Wikipedia just for fun, and over a year later you can still find inaccurate information embedded deep in the site's entries about the American Revolution. I can't stress this enough: Wikipedia is not accurate. That's why writers can't use it. That's why you can't use it. 

I'm not saying that everything on Wikipedia is incorrect. In fact, the opposite is true. What I'm saying is that anyone, anyone, can get on Wikipedia and write that the American Revolution was all about guns. It was not. It had nothing to do with guns. But maybe you go to Wikipedia and you see something that a late night talk show host asked his fans to change, just so he could poke fun at Sarah Palin (again, don't ask). Maybe you write a story all about a patriot who didn't want England to take his musket away from him in the 1700s. That's going to make me go insane.

There is one way, only one way, that Wikipedia can be used as a source of information. First, look up whatever it is you're researching. Hurricanes, maybe, or oranges. Now scroll down. Skip all that questionable content that may have been written by an orange scientist, but may also have been written by Billy who just celebrated his 13th birthday. Look at the bottom of the information for the list of links. Most all Wikipedia entries have these links. Often, these links can be used as sources of real information -- information that's been fact-checked, anyway. This is the only way to use Wikipedia...so don't let me catch you using it for something else!

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  1. I am absolutely, positively, 100 percent behind you on this. I tell my students every time they have to do research to not use Wikipedia, and if they go there because they cannot (refuse to) find another source, drill down to the bottom for the primary sources and check them out. Anybody researching for any reason to use facts to make a valid, emphasize valid, point, should not use Wikipedia. In other words, "Right!"

  2. Thanks! So glad to have your support on this one.

  3. Great articles and to the point. I completely agree.

  4. Agree, but have to admit I use it as my starting point UNLESS Google throws up better sources - e.g. researching solar flares for WIP and tend to use NASA as my primary source. Always learnt when I was studying history to double check the facts. Thanks for the reminder.