Citing Wikipedia

Wales’ comments on citing Wikipedia produce BBC correction

News reports circulated recently that Jimmy Wales had reversed his position on the citability of Wikipedia in student papers, arguing that this practice should be generally accepted. The coverage was based on a misunderstanding, however, and the BBC article on his remarks has been changed to address the confusion.

The incident arose after the 2007 Online Information conference, at which Wales was a keynote speaker. As part of his remarks there, Wales observed that it's impossible to control where students seek out information, so that banning Wikipedia makes as much sense as a ban on listening to rock and roll. He said that a teacher who would prohibit students reading Wikipedia would be "a bad educator".

Included in the original version of the BBC story about the speech was a provocative assertion. It stated that Wales "now thinks that students should be able to cite the online encyclopaedia in their work. Previously, Mr Wales believed that the website, which is edited by users, lacked the authority for academic work." (While attributing these views to him, the story did not provide a direct quote, although other quotes from Wales were used.)

The topic of whether and how Wikipedia can be used in student research papers has been a subject of debate for quite some time (see archived story). Wales addressed the question publicly two years ago, in a BusinessWeek interview published in the aftermath of the Seigenthaler incident. Both then and on numerous occasions since, Wales has consistently said he believes students should not be relying on citations to Wikipedia in academic papers — usually making the point that citing any encyclopedia, including Encyclopædia Britannica, is not an acceptable form of scholarship.

From the BBC report it would appear that Wales had suddenly changed his stance on the question. After some consternation about this, the section of the article was rewritten, and seems to better reflect the nuances of Wales's remarks. It now reports that Wales still holds that Wikipedia lacks authority for use in academic citations, and that plagiarism from Wikipedia should meet with a failing grade. However, he did say that he thought younger students, whose expected research skills would not be as developed, could use Wikipedia as a reference if the articles were supported by accurate citations.

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