How to cite Wikipedia

There are two things to consider with regard to Wikipedia and your paper. First, should you use it at all? Second, if you do use something from Wikipedia as a source, how do you cite it?

Should you use Wikipedia when writing your paper?

Generally, you should not use Wikipedia as a source in academic writing. As anyone can contribute to an article, there is no guarantee that the information will be factually accurate, current or original.

Some universities have strict rules regarding use of Wikipedia.

Here is what the University of Michigan has to say on the subject:
Can students and researchers cite Wikipedia articles in academic writing? When Wikipedia just emerged, the answer was absolutely no. Some Universities even have strict policies on not allowing students citing Wikipedia. But with the growth of better-quality Wikipedia entries being in recent years, people start to admit that Wikipedia can be a good starting point for research although it should never be the sole resource to consult. At least, people could get a general idea, keywords, and basic categories they can explore under a topic. But the question of citing Wikipedia or not remains controversial. (University of Michigan, 2018, para. 1)
And Columbia College:
“Wikipedia may not be considered an acceptable source for a college or university assignment. Be sure to evaluate the content carefully and check your assignment” (Columbia College, 2018, para 5).

Therefore, the first step when considering using Wikipedia as a source is to find out whether there are any rules that apply in your institution. If your university does not have a policy, you may be able to use Wikipedia as a source.

Assessing the quality of a Wikipedia article

When you start researching for your paper, you might begin by gaining a broad overview through a simple internet search to gather ideas and find potential credible sources. At this point, it is likely that you will find a Wikipedia article relevant to your topic.

A key question at this stage should be the quality of the article: Is it good enough for you to consider using it to inspire your academic writing, or even as a source? Evaluating source credibility is of key importance to safeguard the credibility of your paper.

Wikipedia administrators are quite open about the potential flaws that result from the way in which the site is maintained and grown. They offer a comprehensive guide on how to evaluate the quality of an article on Wikipedia, which focuses on three key aspects:

  • The general structure, quality of writing and balance within the article
  • Review of the Talk and History sections for that article
  • Attention to warning signs, located at the top of the article directly underneath the heading

Structure, quality of writing and balance

The guide to evaluating a Wikipedia article points to several factors to assess regarding structure, quality of writing and balance. Ask yourself:

  • Is the lead section easy to understand and a useful summary of the article’s key points?
  • Are there headings, subheadings and diagrams as appropriate?
  • Are the various aspects of the topic well-balanced?
  • Is the article neutral and informative, without bias or opinion? Or, if there are several different viewpoints on the topic, are they all addressed fairly?
  • Are the claims made in the article supported by links to reliable sources?
  • Is there a list of reliable and relevant sources at the end?

If you answer yes to all these questions, the article passes the first step of the quality assessment.

The Talk and History sections

At the top of each article, you will find two tabs of interest regarding article quality: Talk and History.

TalkIn the Talk section, anyone can leave a comment for the site administrators concerning a piece of information that may be incorrect or requires further verification. Here you can view the discussion history surrounding this article.
HistoryIn the History section, you can find every previous version of the article and see exactly how it has evolved over time. You can view the users who have made the changes and in some cases reach their personal biography (if they have created one), which might include information on their experience with the topic.

Verification vs. warning signs

One of the main indicators Wikipedia offers regarding the quality of an article is whether or not it has been verified. The site actually has fairly detailed policies regarding referencing, in-text citations and the use of verifiable information.

You can find out how reliable a certain article is by looking at the top of the page to see any notes left by the administrators regarding what is missing from making this a verified source.

Example of a verified Wikipedia article

Example of an unverified Wikipedia article

If an article includes these warnings signs, you should probably not base any of your research or even early ideas on it.

Keep in mind that even if an article does not have these warning signs and is therefore considered verified, this verification is not like peer review with a journal article, but also relies on the Wikipedia community. Therefore, in general, it still cannot be considered a high-quality academic source.

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Drawing inspiration from Wikipedia

There are three different ways you might use ideas from Wikipedia articles, other than as a direct source:

  • Gain an understanding of the basics of the topic (if you are not already familiar)
  • Gain an understanding of related topics through the hyperlinked articles featured within the main article
  • Identify potential sources from the references listed at the end of the article

Gaining a basic understanding of the topic and related subjects

Almost any subject you could think of has been written about on Wikipedia, often in multiple languages! By reading the general article on a subject, you can start to gain a base understanding of it — upon which you will build through research of other, more credible sources.

Here we have an example of a Wikipedia page on a comprehensive topic, Yugoslavia.

In this example, you can see how the first paragraphs offer a basic yet informative explanation of Yugoslavia. All of the words in blue are links to related articles someone interested in learning about Yugoslavia might wish to read.

By reading through these, you can gain quite a thorough understanding of the topic, which can offer a valuable base for exploring the subject further.

Identifying potential sources

The comprehensive list of sources at the bottom of each article can be very useful to you.

Example of Wikipedia reference list:

With this list, you can visit the sources directly and find the primary source yourself. You might also be able to identify experts in the field, if there is one author who has been referenced several times.

Wikipedia use in certain subjects

As a source in itself, Wikipedia may be useful for some subjects. For example, if you need some basic information that is not necessarily academic.

Alternatively, you might be studying something that actually includes Wikipedia as one of the topics. For example, modern trends in media and information sharing.

Citing Wikipedia

It is crucial that you are aware of how you can acceptably use Wikipedia in academic work and whether it is a possibility for you with regard to your university’s policies before you reach the stage of actually citing a Wikipedia source.

Once you are sure you are allowed to do so, and you are certain the particular information in the Wikipedia is the most suitable for your purposes, you need to consider how to reference the source in the bibliography as well as cite it in the text. Remember that, as Wikipedia articles can change as they are updated, it is important that you record the date that you consulted the source.

In this section, we provide a list of examples separated by type of citation style: parenthetical and numerical. Only parenthetical styles will require specific referencing for Wikipedia in text; numerical styles rely on a number to direct the reader to the relevant source in the literature list.

Literature list and in-text citation examples for parenthetical citation styles

APA (see more detail on how to cite Wikipedia in APA)
Reference list formatName of Entry. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved month day, year from URL.
Reference list exampleCleopatra. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved June 6, 2018 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatra.
In-text citation format(Name of publication, date, paragraph number)
In-text citation example(Wikipedia, n.d., para 2)
MLA
Reference list format“Title of Entry.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation Inc., day month year last modified, time last modified, URL. Accessed day month year.
Reference list example“Cleopatra.” Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 6 June 2018, 6:17 am, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatra. Accessed 6 June 2018.
In-text citation format(“Title of entry”), as there is no author to attribute
In-text citation example(“Cleopatra”)
Chicago
Reference list formatWikipedia. Year. S.v. “Title of entry, written in lower case unless it is a proper noun.” Date of access or last modification. URL.
Reference list exampleWikipedia. 2018. “Cleopatra.” Last modified 6 June 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatra.
In-text citation format(Wikipedia year)
In-text citation example(Wikipedia 2018)
Turabian
Reference list format“Title of entry.” In Wikipedia. Publisher. Year. Accessed month day, year. URL.
Reference list example“Cleopatra.” In Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 2018. Accessed June 6, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatra
In-text citation format(Publisher year)
In-text citation example(Wikipedia 2018)
AAA
Reference list formatYear. “Title of entry.” Wikipedia website, month day. Accessed [month day, year]. URL
Reference list example2018. “Cleopatra.” Wikipedia website, June 6. Accessed [June 6, 2018]. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatra
In-text citation format(Publisher year)
In-text citation example(Wikipedia 2018)
APSA
Reference list formatWikipedia, Year published. “Title of entry.” URL (month day, year accessed)
Reference list exampleWikipedia, 2001. “Cleopatra.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatra (June 6, 2018)
In-text citation format(Author year)
In-text citation example(Wikipedia 2018)

Literature list examples for numerical citation styles

Vancouver
Reference list formatTitle of entry [wiki on the Internet]. Location (in this case, Wikimedia Foundation’s location): Publisher. Year month day entry started. Available from: URL
Reference list exampleCleopatra [wiki on the Internet]. St. Petersburg (FL): Wikimedia Foundation. 2001 September 19. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatra.
OSCOLA
Reference list format‘Title of Entry’ (Wikipedia article, day month year) <URL> accessed day month year.
Reference list example‘Cleopatra’ (Wikipedia article, 19 September 2001) <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatra> accessed 6 June 2018.
IEEE
Reference list format“Title of entry,” in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia [Online], month day, year. Available: URL [month day, year accessed].
Reference list example“Cleopatra,” in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia [Online], June 6, 2018. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatra [June 6, 2018].
AMA
Reference list formatTitle of entry. Wikipedia. URL. Published [original date: month day, year]. Updated [last update: month day, year]. Accessed [month day, year].
Reference list exampleCleopatra. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatra. Published [September 19, 2001]. Updated [June 6, 2018]. Accessed [June 6, 2018].
ACS
Reference list formatWikipedia. Title of entry. URL (accessed month day, year).
Reference list exampleWikipedia. Cleopatra. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleopatra (accessed June 6, 2018).

Latest update vs. original publication date

While some citation styles specify that you should use the date an article was last updated, others prefer the original publication date.

On Wikipedia, you can find this in the “View history” tab at the top of the page on the far right. By clicking through to the oldest revisions, you can identify the date the original article was uploaded to Wikipedia.

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Courtney Gahan

Courtney has a Bachelor in Communication and a Master in Editing and Publishing. She has worked as a freelance writer and editor since 2013, and joined the Scribbr team as an editor in June 2017. She loves helping students and academics all over the world improve their writing (and learning about their research while doing so!).

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