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What role Wikipedia plays in scientific work

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At the beginning of a scientific paper you want to define the terms of your research question. Where can you get a correct definition if the term is not considered well known in your field?

A lexicon is often used here: printed in the university library or, even more conveniently, on its online edition. “Der Brockhaus” or “Der Duden” are well-known encyclopedias and reference works and fixed institutions in everyday language. Depending on the subject area, other well-known works are included, for example “The Pschyrembel” in medicine.

But is “Wikipedia” also suitable as a source for the definition you are looking for?

Thanks to Wikipedia, no questions remain unanswered when there are lively discussions among friends. You quickly look up a fact that you just argued about. So it's not surprising that Wikipedia is one of the most visited websites in the world. But is Wikipedia also suitable outside of everyday questions?

Opinions are divided on whether or not Wikipedia may be quoted in scientific work. In any case, the number of articles on scientific topics in the English language Wikipedia is up to a million. Its content should be suitable as a source for a definition for your own scientific work, right?

To find an answer to this question, we will explain the differences between “traditional” encyclopedias such as Brockhaus and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. We will help you evaluate the articles and how you (under certain circumstances) cite Wikipedia articles.

Difference between Wikipedia and classic encyclopedias


The online encyclopedia Wikipedia is co-authored by many authors. Virtually anyone with Internet access can participate. The collaborative production of knowledge cannot be assigned to a specific author. Under the "Page history" Wikipedia lists all authors of an article, but only nicknames or IP addresses and no names. It is precisely this anonymity that is considered unscientific. In the case of printed encyclopedias, however, the entries can usually be assigned to a specific author.

editorial staff

The idea of ​​which group of people makes up the editorial team behind a reference work is exciting. It is believed that experts are following this work. But in earlier times, when there were only printed reference works, it wasn't just experts who were busy producing their content.

Are the editors behind a printed encyclopedia automatically more trustworthy than the editors behind Wikipedia?

Because even at Wikipedia there are administrators who are allowed to delete articles. It defines which basic principles must be observed when writing Wikipedia articles. If the rules are violated or a new post does not meet the requirements, an article will be deleted. However, the real names of the editorial team and the authors are unknown.


The advantage of online dictionaries is that they are much more lively and changeable. An article can be edited every second and is therefore always up-to-date. However, this can also completely change his statement.


The texts of the entries in an online encyclopedia are much more pleasant to read. The shape no longer has to be as choppy as it was necessary for the limited space in printed works. However, some articles can also degenerate into a novel.


The fact that Wikipedia articles can be called up quickly online is no longer reserved for this encyclopedia. Online editions have also become the norm for classic, printed encyclopedias. It is no longer necessary to store volumes several meters thick.


A decisive criterion of an encyclopedia is its quality. The information in the encyclopedia must be reliable and correct. Traditional lexicons clearly have the advantage here. Or not?

A random test by Stern magazine in 2007 examined 50 randomly selected articles from Wikipedia and the online edition of Brockhaus. The criteria of correctness, completeness, timeliness and comprehensibility were evaluated. Wikipedia finished with a school grade of 1.7, a grade better than Brockhaus. Another experiment by journalists from the journal Nature showed that scientific articles from Wikipedia contain only slightly more errors (4 errors) than articles from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (3 errors). A more recent study from 2012 also found Wikipedia to be more reliable than the Encyclopaedia Britannica. However, this study was commissioned by the Wikimedia Foundation behind Wikipedia.

Use and rate Wikipedia articles for scientific work

In our opinion, Wikipedia is a good source for the first introduction to a new topic that you will deal with for a longer period of time for an upcoming work. The article can help you get an overview of a topic. You will become aware of technical terms and discover areas of the topic that you were not yet familiar with.

It is important to know how articles can be rated on Wikipedia:

  1. Are there references at the end of the article?
  2. Are there any critical statements in the history of the article?
  3. Do you find warnings or accolades from the Wikipedia administrators above the article?

If in doubt, you will find references to other texts that were cited for the article in the source information in Wikipedia. Obtain the original source and read the quoted statement. You can then quote them directly in your work. We described the way to the primary source, which you must not cite unseen, in a previous blog post.

A 2017 study shows that Wikipedia is actually a good source of ideas. New ideas in technically relevant Wikipedia articles mean that these ideas are taken up more frequently in scientific papers. The sources linked there were also accessed more often. Wikipedia thus contributes to the fact that the quoted sources become better known.

Are you allowed to quote Wikipedia directly?

According to a further study from 2016, Wikipedia is also cited more and more frequently as a direct source in scientific articles with a peer-review process. The authors see this as a sign that the acceptance of Wikipedia as a reliable source and thus its credibility is increasing.

Does that mean that you can also quote Wikipedia in your thesis or research paper? A separate article on Wikipedia is devoted to this question. The answer is clear: no, Wikipedia shouldn't be cited as a reliable source.

Even if you don't want to quote Wikipedia directly, you can simply record the data with the Citavi Picker. In the case of Wikipedia articles, the picker sends the permalink of the article to the currently open project. Instead of e.g. also Even years later, the exact version of the article can be found at this address.

If you would like to use Wikipedia as a source for a definition in your work, it is best to consult your institution. However, your quotation should never go beyond a definition - not even with traditional lexicon articles. Because a lexicon only provides background information that has been taken from other sources. The best strategy is always to get the original source and cite it.

Have you ever cited Wikipedia as a source in your work?
Do the guidelines of your university require you to refrain from quoting?
We look forward to your experiences, which you can share with us on Facebook.

To deepen

Loveland, Jeff; Reagle, Joseph (2013): Wikipedia and encyclopedic production. In: New Media & Society 15 (8), pp. 1294-1311. DOI: 10.1177 / 1461444812470428.

Thompson, Neil; Hanley, Douglas (2017): Science Is Shaped by Wikipedia: Evidence from a Randomized Control Trial. In: SSRN Journal. DOI: 10.2139 / ssrn.3039505.

About Jana Behrendt

Jana Behrendt is interested in everything to do with personal knowledge organization - as one would expect from a qualified librarian. On the other hand, she reads very little in her free time. But she loves hiking in the Swiss mountains - as long as she doesn't have to look down.