Many questions are closed as trivial, if one can look up the answer in Wikipedia. And yet many questions with extraordinary answers have as their sources (only) Wiki entries. This seems fairly contradictory and confusing. Wikipedia has a strongly enforced rule of "no primary research" can be included in its entries. Entries in it must, if I understand correctly, be referenced to outside research sources.

We don't want to "replicate Wikipedia". I understand and heartily support this philosophy. Then why are we so accepting of answers with nothing but wiki sources?

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    I think we close questions as trivial when they are directly answered by a wiki article. Citing only wikipedia is not ideal per se (since it is often wrong and almost always a superficial treatment). However, there's nothing wrong with someone providing a great insightful answer, and using wiki for a quick reference to support a fact. What I find more problematic is answers that merely bulkquotes a Wikipedia passage.
    – Semaphore Mod
    Feb 6, 2016 at 7:27

5 Answers 5


I'm very glad that you've raised the question - I think it is vital to discuss what we want this site to be and to converge on community expectations & standards.

Having said that, I don't understand the problem. Why are answers referencing Wikipedia intrinsically bad?

The vote up/vote down mechanism provides you the option to discourage answers that you think are too reliant on wikipedia...

Most of us don't have access to primary sources and don't have the skills needed to deal with primary sources. I suspect that the vast majority(90%+) of the questions should not be answered by primary sources.

Most questions aren't really complex enough to merit either primary or secondary sources. (Aside: I think that the answers with no references are far more dangerous to the site than those with wikipedia references. While the GodKing of H:SE can write an essay and cite himself as the only source required, others have begun to copy this practice and just type in assertions with no evidence or references. Many of these, including the GodKing are full of opinions and prejudices that actively interfere with meaningful historical research. (The side effect of prohibiting primary research is that it also prohibits assertions like "PTSD is cowardice". )

T.E.D suggests that you're actually complaining about lazy answers; I'd argue that the bulk of our problem is actually lazy questions. People who don't bother to do any preliminary research. The second largest category of our questions (assertion without evidence) is people who lack a critical bit of context to enable them to do their own research. Once someone can point out the relevant search terms or assumptions, wikipedia is perfectly adequate to direct them to a basic article and then wikipedia references secondary sources that can be followed for further research. I've used this multiple times in my answers, citing Wikipedia for the general concepts and then following through the references that are most valuable.

Wikipedia is the generic food of source material. It is adequate for most general uses. I think it would be a crying shame if we stopped answering questions because we couldn't answer with a primary source reference.

If I look at the five most recent questions:

  • How many warriors (troops) did feudal vassals have to provide to the king? - there is no value in consulting primary sources for that question. You'd have to provide citations to hundreds of sources before you could begin to answer the question. Wikipedia will provide limited value, although perhaps the article on Feudalism might be helpful to OP. The question contains a huge flawed assumption about uniformity and models of historical behavior. The question is best answered by a brief essay (or closure).

  • How does the US main battle rifle, the m4a1, stack up against other western main battle rifles? Another question that might be best closed. We could cite primary sources - probably the US Army comparison and evaluation reports (Analysis of Alternatives in my field; I'm sure the Army has a different name for the reports). These are likely to be far too technical to be of general use, and to really answer the question you're going to have to pull similar reports from other armies. The easy part is the "when will it be replaced?" - That answer is probably in the document. Wikipedia may have a page on infantry weapons that is probably more closely matched to OP's request.

  • What divided the Roman Catholic church from the Russian Orthodox church of Russia? If you have to ask that question, then primary sources will not help you. Primary sources for this question are going to require so much contextual support that a secondary source is better served. Probably the key to answering this question is to recognize that the answer is "the great schism", and then to consult wikipedia.

  • Cape Of good hope consequences Since I still don't understand this question, I'm going to assert without evidence that primary sources are unlikely to be helpful.

  • Country/Area joins war after claiming neutral then attacking [on hold] Primary sources would not help this question. Wikipedia might.

  • Did North African countries have a police in the 18th/19th Century? (Bonus since the prior question was closed). Providing one or more source documents discussing night watchmen, law enforcement, etc. may or may not help. OP is really asking for an introduction to a topic.


I'm honestly probably more guilty of this offense than anyone else on this stack.

What I would encourage is everyone (myself included) to at least make more of an effort to follow the little reference notes Wikipedia puts in its text, and use those instead of the actual Wikipedia text. Among other reasons, Wikipedia text can change drastically as time goes by, whereas the sources should not. I can tell you from experience that fixing a years-old answer you hardly remember writing when its link is no longer any good is a real drag.

That being said, Wikipedia is all about condensing said sources into a short, coherent narrative on the subject (of the page) accessible to non-experts. The overlap between that and what needs to be done in an answer here is so great, that very often Wikipedia is far and away the best source I can provide. I'll follow the source links there, but very often they don't tell enough of the story, or far far too much of some other story to wade through to get the one relevant nugget of info, or both such that even seeing that nugget requires knowledge that a novice may not have. This would require me to duplicate a lot of the glue text that the Wikipedia article provided. Doing that would be a duplication of effort, cause insanely boring expansions of my answer, and IMHO be morally questionable.

So I think there are many situations where a Wikipedia link allows me to give a short coherent answer, at the expense of being twice removed from the sources rather than just once. But at least this has the advantage that the reader has multiple layers of detail through which they can chose to dive.

Reading back through this, its coming off as an unmitigated defense of "Sola Wikipedia" answers, and I don't intend that. I agree with the question that we have a problem with those. I just want to argue that Wikipedia links themselves are not the problem. Lazy answers are the problem. If you can't contribute any more in your answer than "Go read this ...", then you should just leave a comment instead.

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    To be honest, T.E.D. when I wrote the line "many extraordinary answers...sources from wiki..." I was, at the time, think "like many of TED's."
    – CGCampbell
    Feb 5, 2016 at 15:31
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    @CGCampbell - blush. OK, but in that case, I'd argue here that even you aren't really finding Wikipedia links to be the true problem. They are just the most common expression of the underlying "lazy answer" problem.
    – T.E.D. Mod
    Feb 5, 2016 at 15:41

I personally find the reliance on Wikipedia a trifle worrying, despite this article


which suggests it is largely sound. I suspect, though cannot prove, Wikipedia is more reliable for the hard Sciences than for humanities, which are far more susceptible to interpretation. However, I do not think it should be regarded as the "gold standard" it appears to be.

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    Case in point, the article claims: "articles in medical and scientific fields such as pathology,[5] (...) comparing Wikipedia to professional and peer-reviewed sources found that Wikipedia's depth and coverage were of a high standard." yet upon follow up the cited source was merely a letter to the editor (not an actual study) that in fact says: "It is clear that caution must be advised with regards to the medical information presented" even though the authors consider it a "useful learning resource".
    – Semaphore Mod
    Feb 13, 2016 at 9:37

On my opinion, it is OK if the answer cites a high quality article in Wikipedia. Wikipedia contains a lot of high quality information.

The distinction here is how hard it is to find this information. If the answer to a question is easily found by typing the keywords from the question into Google, I usually vote to close. But sometimes it is not the case. One needs to know what keywords to enter to find the answer on Internet. And this may constitute a good answer.


We don't want to "replicate Wikipedia". I understand and heartily support this philosophy. Then why are we so accepting of answers with nothing but wiki sources?

As noted before, Wikipedia has a lot of good content. Much of it is inacessible in any other way to most people, who don't have access to electronic journals or academic libraries, and wouldn't know where to look for the information they wanted if they did.

Secondly, wikipedia has grown ridiculously big. Often intelligent stack users make a good-faith attempt to find the answer to their question on Wikipedia, and don't find it even if it is there. Some answerer did manage to find it, and posts it. I see nothing wrong there.

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