Almost every student, faculty member, and librarian knows from experience how valuable Wikipedia can actually be when looking for quick background information about almost any topic. But what are the differences between Wikipedia and the traditional, scholarly reference works listed and described on the Reference Shelf tab of this guide? In this box I flesh out some of those differences (and similarities) within the context of one of the greatest reference works of all time: Encyclopedia Britannica.
The Encyclopedia Britannica contains carefully edited articles on all major topics. It fits the ideal purpose of a reference work as a place to get started, or to refer back to as you read and write. The articles in Britannica are written by expert authors who are both identifiable and credible. Many articles provide references to books and other sources about the topic covered. Articles are edited for length, the goal being to provide students (and other researchers) with sufficient background information without overwhelming them.
Undergraduates are rarely permitted to cite encyclopedia articles. Ask your professor if you plan to do so. The reason for this prohibition has to do with the function of reference works. Encyclopedias are best suited to providing background information rather than in-depth analysis or novel perspective. The "conversation" among literary scholars and historians—or academics in any other discipline for that matter—does not occur within the pages or pixels of encyclopedia articles.
Wikipedia is "written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world" and relies on the collective wisdom of its volunteers to get the facts right and to balance the opinions expressed. Wikipedia, of course, can be very useful as a starting point for many topics, especially obscure ones or those with passing or popular interest not well covered in scholarly reference works. Wikipedia articles often reflect the enthusiasm of their anonymous contributor(s) for the subject. Articles are sometimes too detailed, making it difficult for the uninitiated to identify key takeaways. Another downside of Wikipedia is that articles sometimes paper over unflattering or unpleasant but important facts about a topic near and dear to the contributors' hearts. Struggles sometimes break out behind the scenes as contributors compete with one another to create narratives that, even if technically accurate, might leave readers with partial or even false impressions. In other words, Wikipedia articles, even when written on topics ostensibly uncontroversial, are easily politicized. Wikipedia slants more often than Britannica to the left of the political spectrum.
As with other reference works, most faculty instruct students not to cite Wikipedia. But some go further, advising students not to consult Wikipedia as a background source. Prohibitions of this nature, fairly uncommon nowadays, typically result from the volunteer approach to editing taken by Wikipedia, which can be unreliable. In order to be safe, think of Wikipedia as the first stop on a research road trip. Move on from Wikipedia to edited, scholarly encyclopedias and other reference works.
An interesting compromise between traditional encyclopedias and Wikipedia is Citizendium, a project that continues to limp along but has unfortunately not gained much traction. Most academic work on Wikipedia has focused on making it more like a scholarly reference source through the interventions of undergraduate and graduate students, librarians, and disciplinary faculty.
Acknowledgement: This page was inspired by Rick Lezenby, a Social Sciences Librarian affiliated with Temple University Libraries. I have substantially altered and expanded on Rick's original text.