Wikipedia Is Not a Source for Your Writing

Don’t label this publicly-edited directory as an authority

Pamela Hazelton
Nov 24, 2020 · 3 min read
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Photo by andreyphoto63 / Logo by Wikimedia Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

As modern writers struggle to follow through with evidence-based concepts, it’s easy to get lazy and rely on less than ideal sources. It’s the perfect way to tarnish one’s reputation and put writing careers at risk. Citing sources is about more than attaching a name to a quote or paraphrased statement. Writers must use due diligence to ensure the accuracy of credited sources.

One of the most common websites credited is Wikipedia. Yet, it’s not a source. Wikipedia merely collects information from various places — sometimes 50 or more — and restructures it in digestible chunks. However, there’s no initial vetting of volunteer editors or the details they submit. That means, at any given moment, entries can contain fake or fraudulent information.

An ever-changing content hub

Look at Wikipedia like a living document. Entries are continually revised.

For example, the entry for notable author William Faulkner has been altered thousands of times since first created in October 2001. The page contains scores of footnotes, citations, and external links.

We want to think everyone who modifies Wikipedia content is honest and fair, but that’s not always the case. And Wikipedia admits it.

While some articles are of the highest quality of scholarship, others are admittedly complete rubbish.

— Under: “We do not expect you to trust us” in Ten things you may not know about Wikipedia (locked entry)

Wikipedia’s general disclaimer reaffirms it can’t guarantee information is accurate.

The content of any given article may recently have been changed, vandalized or altered by someone whose opinion does not correspond with the state of knowledge in the relevant fields.

There are two significant issues here:

  1. Unless someone notices a problem, nothing listed on Wikipedia is verified. While editors are supposed to cite every claim, this doesn’t always happen. People can and do use the system’s openness to push agendas. Brands do, too. In 2019, The North Face edited vacation destination entries to include branded photos to climb search engine ranks.
  2. Information cited today may be absent tomorrow. While this can happen to any internet resource — websites come and go — changes in Wikipedia entries often go unnoticed.

In other words, linking to a Wikipedia entry can lead readers to a page void of the content presented at the time of writing. It goes beyond text; images and other media may also disappear.

Use Wikipedia to locate authentic sources

Wikipedia is a good starting point when typical online searches prove difficult. Footnotes and external links can help guide you to reliable sources of information, including exact quotes.

Of course, the sources used to update Wikipedia entries should also be under scrutiny. Biases can affect which sources editors use and omit when presenting findings.

Don’t be the source of misinformation or disinformation

The internet is abound with false details, and the basis of intent determines a writer’s liability.

Misinformation consists of false details that are produced and spread without the intent to mislead. The most common form of misinformation is presenting or deducing an assumption or opinion as fact. In 2017, media outlets announced Tom Petty’s death prior to his passing. The LAPD later tweeted “information was inadvertently provided to some media sources.”

Disinformation is designed to mislead people into thinking something unfactual is true. An example would be accusing a government agency of sabotage acts when there is no evidence to support the claim.

The onus of identifying legitimate sources of information lies on the writer, always. Recognizing the most reliable outlets for factual information and proper citation is critical in building and maintaining trust and authority.

Pamela Hazelton is an avid writer, marketer and business consultant. She’s an editor of 2 Minute Madness, Small Business Strong, The Work+Life Balance and Write, I Must, and manages the Small Biz Strong Substack. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Parler.

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Pamela Hazelton

Written by

Avid writer, marketer & business consultant. // Reward yourself a little every day. 🆆🅾🆁🅺 + 🅻🅸🅵🅴 🅱🅰🅻🅰🅽🅲🅴

Write, I Must

On finding great ideas, overcoming hurdles, and digitally publishing.

Pamela Hazelton

Written by

Avid writer, marketer & business consultant. // Reward yourself a little every day. 🆆🅾🆁🅺 + 🅻🅸🅵🅴 🅱🅰🅻🅰🅽🅲🅴

Write, I Must

On finding great ideas, overcoming hurdles, and digitally publishing.

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