Everyone is familiar with Wikipedia and its abundant use in today's society, academically and in casual life. The question I posit here is should we allow it as a reference when answering questions? It is widely regarded as a very nonacademic source by merit of its easily editable nature.
I have no problems using Wikipedia as a reliable source. According to a study in the Journal Nature in 2005, Wikipedia is as accurate as Britannica. Though editable, most of wikipedia is pretty reliable. My biggest concern about wikipedia is that this will turn into a copy-paste board. My question here
It depends on the question. Generally speaking, if an answer can easily be found on Wikipedia we should indicate that in a comment rather than 'duplicating' the information an answer. Copy - pasting large chunks of Wikipedia is unacceptable and undermines the usefulness and credibility of History SE.
However, sometimes the answer to a question cannot easily be found. A good example is this answer to a question on the Vietnam War (problem is search terms). Another example might be questions about 'the largest' or 'the most'. Answers compiled from several Wikipedia articles may also be justified as 'not easily found'.
When using Wikipedia, the notes / sources of the article should always be checked. If there are no citations, don't use it (or at least point out that the information you are quoting is uncited). Also, some of the sources used may be dated or disputed, or may have been misused or misinterpreted.
In general, whatever source one uses, it is good practice to find another source to back it up whenever possible - but beware that many online sources are simply copying (often word for word) articles from other sites.
I absolutely agree that one must be cautious about using Wikipedia. There have been a number of studies concerned with the reliability of the content. A few examples are:
- On measuring the quality of Wikipedia articles
- Assigning trust to Wikipedia content
- A Brief Review of Studies of Wikipedia in Peer-Reviewed Journals
(These particular examples are all behind paywalls, but I'm sure that a Google search will turn up other, similar, articles which will doubtless make the same points)
Personally, I am generally quite relaxed about using it to provide links to the pages for people mentioned in my answers, since this is mainly to provide background detail for people unfamiliar with the subject or person.
For example, in my answer to the question Why did the Germans spare Allied troops trapped at Dunkirk?, I've tried to link to all the Wikipedia pages for the individuals mentioned in my answer. These are not essential details, but simply background information to help those unfamiliar with the dramatis personae.
I'm also generally happy to provide links to Wikipedia for uncontentious topics, although with a note of caution that you didn't mention. While the URL to the Wikipedia page shouldn't change, the content of that page might. Almost anyone can edit Wikipedia - it is, in its own words:
... written collaboratively by largely anonymous volunteers who write without pay. Anyone with Internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles
You might link to a page with content that is uncontentious, and which provides the mainstream view about a topic, a future edit may change that.
Nevertheless, for things like the British Expeditionary Force, and the background to the Dunkirk evacuation itself which I also mentioned in my answer above the Wikipedia pages again provide useful background for those less-familiar with the subject.
However, for the documents that provide the main sources for my answer (the diaries of General Halder, the note from Major-General Alfred Jodl to labour minister Robert Ley, etc.) I prefer to link to online, digitised versions of the original documents where possible.
Now, Wikipedia is getting better at providing sources for its content, but it is a slow process (see the reviews in the academic journals listed above). Wikipedia is still no substitute for proper peer-reviewed sources.
Unfortunately, many of the journals containing those sources are now only available online behind a paywall. I was challenged about this when I provided links to this type of site in some of my early answers (I pay for access to the relevant sites because I need them for research).
That actually seems to me to be a reasonable complaint. The point of linking to the source is to support the assertions we make in our questions and answers. If others can't read those sources, then how do they know we are quoting them correctly? How can they follow up on the answer and take their research further?
It is also clearly going to be extremely frustrating to have to search for alternatives (as you may have now experienced yourself in the case of the journal articles I cited above)!
On other questions, I have used books from my own 'library' as the source for my answer. I'm lucky in that regard. I own quite a lot of books. Unfortunately, while books are wonderful things, they can be difficult to share online. Often, those books are also available on Google Books, but Sods-Law dictates that the preview doesn't include the relevant pages.
I have often spent longer looking for decent online sources to support the points in my answer than I spent on writing the answer itself. [If anyone is interested, I've found archive.org to be a very useful resource in that regard. In particular, they have a complete series of the Congressional Record which is obviously the go-to source for a lot of American political history].
However, yes, in the final analysis, and given all the caveats mentioned above, sometimes it is just easier to quote Wikipedia.
If the article there is well written (many articles are, despite the criticisms people often make), and if the [current] content appears to be correct, then I'm reasonable happy to include it as a link in my answer. I would argue that is generally better than providing no supporting source at all.
At least then others can review my source, and challenge it if they feel that it it wrong (hopefully they would also provide alternative sources to support their position). And surely that is, in fact, the main reason for providing supporting sources in the first place.
EDIT 23 May 2020
Time has passed, as it is wont to do, and the articles that I cited at the beginning of this answer are now freely available as PDF files from a number of sites. I have linked to examples of free versions below:
While I agree that cutting and pasting from Wikipedia should be frowned upon, I also wouldn't discourage it being a source of reference. For example, I might have answers that have been learned or accumulated over time, but can't remember where I learned such knowledge. The only on-line reference that I know of that would support an answer is usually Wikipedia, as the source where I learned it is either not online, not available anymore, or has been lost to the annals of history.
I think it is ok to cite wikipedia, or any other article on the web for that matter, as long as the article or opinions contained therein are backed by solid research that is available publicly. If not, then one shouldn't rely on that information --it could be speculative or original research. And if one learns something new in that process, then one should go and improve wikipedia as well.
But if people cite someone's research then they should qualify it as such (e.g., these scholars believe the following to be true). If someone feels forced to speculate (which is not a bad thing by the way), they should clearly mention that it is their own belief/research/opinion.
A good final conclusion (1-2 lines) would be icing on the cake.
I've read a good number of history books, and I can say that very few of them were written purely as an unbiased narrative. History often tells the story from one perspective. When there is a victor and a loser, you need the story told from both perspectives and few historians can sit on the neutral fence. A good depiction of history would be similar to science... multiple different angles verifying the same thing happened.
In that sense, Wikipedia acts a lot better than any sole academic source. Even if it's more 'shallow', it does a good job of 'flagging' biased answers and comparing different sources for a satisfactory conclusion.