Thursday, February 15, 2007


When to cite from an encyclopedia -- even though you're not supposed to

I can understand the motivation behind Middlebury College's history department's ban on using Wikipedia as a source. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and encyclopedias have always been a college professor's nemesis for a number of reasons. One goal of writing papers is to force a student to teach herself or himself how to do research -- which an encyclopedia helps to prevent because it lays all of the information on a subject out in a logical fashion. And the better ones also provide a bibliography that can serve as a starting point for a student's research.

Perhaps a more pernicious threat is that encyclopedias are touted as an authoritative source, and that is why encyclopedias and dictionaries have long been used to settle arguments over facts and judgments. There is something about a statement presented on a printed page in a suitable serif font that gives it credibility. One of the goals of a college education is make the student learn to think, and a passive acceptance of what is printed in a book or magazine makes this goal more difficult.

However, there are some exceptions to this rule which I'd like to enumerate here. If there are any college students reading, my advice to them, if you want to use one of these exceptions, is to ask your professor first. A good professor will at least consider hearing your plea for an exception; one who does not -- and can't explain his reasons for refusing to hear your petition -- is probably a mediocrity, and your best tactic is to finish his coursework as fast as possible then avoid any other classes this person teaches.

1. Signed articles are often just as legitimate as normal publications. Besides the specialist periodicals, monographs, and textbooks, one place experts get their writing published is the very encyclopedias that they warn you against. Hard to believe, but true. These articles can be distinguished from other articles by looking at the bottom, where you will find either the name of the author (who you can then research and verify might actually know something about the subject), or a set of initials (which are paired with the author by means of a special appendix to that volume of the encyclopedia).

Here, old-fashioned encyclopedias like Encyclopedia Britannica have a clear advantage over Wikipedia because it does not allow signed articles: Wikipedia is based on the ideal that anyone can edit any article. The advantage of a signed article is that you are dealing with one, identifiable point of view about the subject, who has one consistent opinion on the subject. The disadvantage of a signed article is that even experts make mistakes, and no matter how skilled the writer is one must subject anything that is written to some degree of criticism.

Just remember: you are not citing the work of an encyclopedia, but the authority who wrote the article.

2. A statement in an encyclopedia is an opinion that can serve as a starting point for a critical analysis. Writers have begun essays with quotations from a surprising variety of sources -- which they then subject to their powers of analysis and dissection. A statement in an encyclopedia can serve as a useful starting point for this, especially because it helps you avoid the logically fallacy of a straw man argument.

In this sense, Wikipedia is a uniquely rich source for these kinds of starting points -- possibly better than Encyclopedia Britannica. If one reads Wikipedia for any length of time, one will notice heated arguments (also known as "flame wars") over certain topics, like President George W. Bush, Israel vs. Palestine, and naming conventions like Danzig vs. Gdansk. I suspect that a careful study of the heated words in the edit comments and Talk pages concerning just which name the article about that Baltic port should be can provide interesting insights on German-Polish political relations that I'd expect would please any history professor at Middlebury College. If the student does this, then it is a demonstration of an actively analytical approach to primary materials -- which is what I believe any college professor wants to see.

I know the problem with this argument is that for every student who tries to do this, there are at least 20 who simply want to plagiarize from Wikipedia, and are looking for any excuse to do so. If you do this kind of analysis from the social evidence of Wikipedia for a paper, please talk to your professor as early as possible: once you convince them that this is what you are doing, I honestly believe the good ones will eagerly make an exception for you.

3. Wikipedia as a source for quotations from sources that may be difficult for a student to access. One of the first things I learned in college is that due to the vagarities of funds, publishing houses, and luck, no one library will contain all of the materials that a researcher will need for a paper. Sometimes the information a student wants to use is in a Wikipedia article, otherwise properly presented, and Interlibrary Loan cannot obtain the book or article before the paper is due.

Let me provide an example of this from my own contributions to Wikipedia. There was an Ethiopian warlord by the name of Sebagadis, whose funeral dirge is quoted at length in the relevant Wikipedia article from the original English translation. I know this because I verified it from a copy of the book which I happen to own, and proves that this translation of the dirge is in the Public Domain. Now a student who wants to quote this dirge could use Mordechai Abir's very competent The Era of the Princes, which prints the exact same words, but with minor variants. However, I suspect that using Abir's book as a source is one remove further from the original than Wikipedia as a source -- assuming that the student doesn't have access to the original work. (The only copy I know that exists in Portland, a sizable American city with several universities and a good public library, is my own.)

So sometimes Wikipedia is, due to the diligence of its volunteers, the best source for one fact or another. Should a student then be forced to avoid using Wikipedia entirely?

My advice to any student who needs one of these three exceptions to the rule is to explain the problem to the professor or teacher. If they can't provide a waiver, perhaps they might be able to obtain more quickly the material needed. (If I was approached with a serious request for a rare book I owned, I'd try to find a way to help another amateur, or lover of learning, which could include photocopying the relevant pages from that book and mailing them.) Sometimes Wikipedia quotes a rare primary source when a better, more common source is available to the student. (It happens; remember that we're learning how to make Wikipedia as we do it.)

It is a cliche that every rule has its exceptions. In this case, it is the truth.


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