Should I use or cite Wikipedia? Probably not.

Should you use or cite Wikipedia as a source for an academic paper? The answer depends on your research topic. Wikipedia may be useful as a primary source on popular culture, or for subjects that have not been addressed in the scholarly literature. For more academic topics, however, it cannot compete with the library's specialized encyclopedias and online resources.

Academic Topics

For most topics, you should use and cite a scholarly work rather than Wikipedia. The library has more resources than you can imagine; ask a reference librarian for assistance if you're unsure of where to begin.

Consider researching a topic like "postmodernism" for an English paper. The Wikipedia entry on postmodernism might appear well written and ends with a long bibliography. But compare this to the entry on postmodernism in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism, Second Edition (2004). Rather than a generalist article on the subject, it is a critique of postmodernism that places it squarely within a literary context. The bibliography is more focused as well; of the 21 scholarly works listed, only three appear in the Wikipedia entry as of this writing.

Unlike Wikipedia, the articles in The Johns Hopkins Guide and similar academic reference sources are signed. The postmodernism article was written by John McGowan, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina. He is an editor of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism and the author of Postmodernism and its Critics. A search in the library's article databases returns an article in The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association which contrasts his analysis of postmodernism with those of other scholars. This network of scholarly discourse allows you to interrogate the author's point of view in a way that is not possible with Wikipedia. Furthermore, by following the threads of citation from one work to another, you can build an understanding of your subject.

Articles in Wikipedia may be well written and insightful, but they are not embedded in the world of scholarly discourse. Without knowing who wrote the article, it is more difficult to judge whether the author's writing is worthy of consideration, or to critique his or her motivations or qualifications. Without a known author, Wikipedia articles cannot be considered authoritative.

Popular Culture

When using Wikipedia as a primary source on popular culture, cite it and analyze it accordingly.

For studies of popular culture, Wikipedia and other websites may provide useful material, but they should be treated with healthy skepticism. Suppose you are researching a topic like "reggaeton." As a relatively recent pop music phenomenon, there is very little scholarly literature on the subject. In this case, you might turn to the popular press for background information, and to websites discussing reggaeton. Wikipedia is not the authority on the subject, but just one voice among many on the web. As such, it should be read as a primary source and evaluated accordingly.

The references in Wikipedia to other resources such as news articles can be helpful, but these should be verified. For example, if Wikipedia cites an article on reggaeton in the New York Times, you should use the library's ProQuest subscription to find and read the article for yourself. In cases like this, Wikipedia and its references can provide basic information, but you must provide the scholarly analysis.

General Knowledge

For general knowledge, use an academic source. You don't have to cite, but you do have to get it right.

General knowledge, such as names and dates, doesn't need to be cited, but it does need to be correct. As described above, Wikipedia is useful but not authoritative, so it's a good idea to verify information you find there in an academic reference source such as Oxford Reference Online. You can find the same information as you did in Wikipedia, plus references to other scholarly works that will help with your research.

Further Reading

Rosenzweig, Roy.  "Can history be open source? Wikipedia and the future of the past" Journal of American History, Volume 93, Issue 1 (June 2006) p. 117-144.

Schiff, Stacy.  "Know it all: Can Wikipedia conquer expertise?" The New Yorker, February 26, 2006

Waters, Neil L. "Why you can't cite Wikipedia in my class" Communications of the ACM, Volume 50, Issue 9 (September 2007) p. 15-17.