Wikipedia, Ogyu Sorai, and Academia

I’ve heard a number of different folks – both in personal conversations and at conferences – talk about issues citing Wikipedia in an academic context.

Generally this begins with a reference to some school or another (generally seems to be a History department, but I’ve heard multiple schools referenced) which has forbidden the citation of (or maybe even the consultation of) wikipedia entries in student essays. The argument they’re using this bit of data could be either:

  1. You can’t cite wikipedia in an academic paper, and that is evidence of the fact that Wikipedia isn’t as good as real encyclopedias with editors and print publication houses behind them.
  2. You can’t cite wikipedia in an academic paper, and that is evidence of just how behind the times the ivory tower academics are.

This month’s Communications of the ACM refreshingly adds a richer context to what I was beginning to suspect was some kind of urban legend. Neil Waters, of Middlebury College, wrote this month’s viewpoint column, titled: “Why You Can’t Cite Wikipedia in My Class.” (For now, at least, it appears to be free full text in html or pdf – not sure if that will always be true).

In it, he describes how the Middlebury College History Department came to forbid Wikipedia citations in student essays:

I made that effort [to perceive the positive side of Wikipedia] after an innocuous series of events briefly and improbably propelled me and the history department at Middlebury College into the national, even international, spotlight. While grading a set of final examinations from my “History of Early Japan” class, I noticed that a half-dozen students had provided incorrect information about two topics—the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637–1638 and the Confucian thinker Ogyu Sorai—on which they were to write brief essays. Moreover, they used virtually identical language in doing so. A quick check on Google propelled me via popularity-driven algorithms to the Wikipedia entries on them, and there, quite plainly, was the erroneous information. To head off similar events in the future, I proposed a policy to the history department it promptly adopted: “(1) Students are responsible for the accuracy of information they provide, and they cannot point to Wikipedia or any similar source that may appear in the future to escape the consequences of errors. (2) Wikipedia is not an acceptable citation, even though it may lead one to a citable source.”

The rest, as they say, is history. The Middlebury student newspaper ran a story on the new policy. That story was picked up online by The Burlington Free Press, a Vermont newspaper, which ran its own story. I was interviewed, first by Vermont radio and TV stations and newspapers, then by The New York Times, the Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo, and by radio and TV stations in Australia and throughout the U.S., culminating in a story on NBC Nightly News. Hundreds of other newspapers ran stories without interviews, based primarily on the Times article. I received dozens of phone calls, ranging from laudatory to actionably defamatory. A representative of the Wikimedia Foundation (, the board that controls Wikipedia, stated that he agreed with the position taken by the Middlebury history department, noting that Wikipedia states in its guidelines that its contents are not suitable for academic citation, because Wikipedia is, like a print encyclopedia, a tertiary source. I repeated this information in all my subsequent interviews, but clearly the publication of the department’s policy had hit a nerve, and many news outlets implied, erroneously, that the department was at war with Wikipedia itself, rather than with the uses to which students were putting it.

The key context here is that Wikipedia was (and still is, I believe) disallowed in a specific context, not that Middlebury was trying to prevent its students from seeing that historical interpretations are debated and argued about.

As Waters notes:

If [the goal] is to make Wikipedia a truly authoritative source, suitable for citation, it cannot be done for any general tertiary source, including the Encyclopaedia Britannica. . . . If the goal is more modest—to make Wikipedia more reliable than it is—then it seems to me that any changes must come at the expense of its open-source nature. Some sort of accountability for editors, as well as for the originators of entries, would be a first step, and that, I think, means that editors must leave a record of their real names. A more rigorous fact-checking system might help, but are there enough volunteers to cover 1.6 million entries, or would checking be in effect reserved for popular entries?

In other words, Waters isn’t an ivory tower academic, refusing to cede authority over knowledge to the great unwashed, but a practical educator trying to help his students develop critical thinking skills. (Though I think he has missed out on notion that wikipedia’s governance is also evolving – it isn’t stuck in one model but constantly looking at the right balance of controls versus openness, and how changes on those levers affect the quality and quantity of entries on the site.)

There’s a place for detailed primary and secondary research, and a place for general tertiary sources – and learning that difference seems like a good thing for students and conference presenters to do.


  1. While I appreciate the problem with treating Wikipedia as an authoritative source in a college, Waters’ stance suggests the point of classes is to memorize facts about the Shimabara Rebellion rather than to learn critical thinking. Another approach would be to make it clear any citation that proves incorrect would have a negative effect on a paper’s grade.

  2. I’m certainly a big fan of critical thinking over rote memorization – bit in the context of the article as a whole, I didn’t get the sense Waters is any less interested in critical thinking than either of us.

    That’s the same reason they also don’t allow citing encyclopedias in general – tertiary sources with typically surface “general knowledge” approaches.

    Anytime you try to translate that into a rule for undergrads – the point it which it becomes “you can’t cite wikipedia” rather than “unverified references will have a negative effect on your grade” – you loose some of the detail.

    I used to run into this problem in the classroom as well – even in the dark ages before Wikipedia students had a difficult time understanding the value of different kinds of references. Policies like this always came with classroom discussion about the rationale behind them, etc. I would imagine Waters did the same.

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