I’ve gotten some questions over the last couple of weeks about whether or not it is acceptable to use Wikipedia as a source for various posts, articles, or research papers. Even though the answer likely depends upon your specific writing project and the topic you are writing about, I thought I would post a guide to using Wikipedia as a professional writer.
Guide To Using Wikipedia As A Source For Professional Freelance Writers
Let me start by saying that the debate about whether or not Wikipedia as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica or other references is moot for the purposes of the freelance writing professional. A professional writer must adhere to certain standards that are above and beyond what normal writing requires. This is what sets you apart as a professional. There are arenas in which using Wikipedia is accepted, and perhaps encouraged. In other contexts, using Wikipedia is all but forbidden.
Pro Freelance Writer Guidelines for Acceptable Usage of Wikipedia
- Always Acceptable:
- Preliminary Research – Getting a feel for what a topic is about and what the common issues are.
- Finding Other Sources – The links at the bottom of Wikipedia entries are great ways to find trusted sources.
- Fact Checking – When information you gathered matches the Wikipedia entry that is a good sign.
- Never Acceptable:
- Challenging Trusted Sources – It feels good to stick it to the man, but you’ll need more than a Wikipedia entry to do it.
- Modifying a Wikipedia Entry – Don’t change an entry to make it support your point.
- Secondary Citing – If the entry mentions a research study or other item, cite it directly.
- OK For These Types of Writing:
- Informal writings
- Writings without citations AND without the requirement to be able to cite your source on demand
- Commercial writing or copywriting in which the goal is generic information for a non-expert audience
- Writing about the debate – If you are writing about the differing viewpoints, citing Wikipedia may be the only way to cite the alternate viewpoint. Just make sure it is a legitimate alternative and not the ravings of non-credible groups or individuals.
- Not Acceptable For These Types of Writing:
- Peer reviewed Journal articles. If you are writing one of these, you already know why.
- Scientific, medical, or educational writings published in print or in the online version of print publications.
- Legal documents and filings. Wikipedia is by nature hearsay.
- Technical Writing – Cite the primary material. The exception is technical writing about something that is not owned or produced by your client. In this case, primary material is likely not accessible.
Here is the short version.
If you have to cite your source in a footnote, bibliography, or other standard research format, do not cite Wikipedia.
Hopefully this helps.