Wikipedia, Dictionaries, Encyclopaedias and “pre-research”

We all know academic writing “shouldn’t quote Wikipedia”… but what we often get wrong is why it’s not ‘the done thing’.

The real reason isn’t that it’s not peer reviewed–after all, it’s okay to quote primary texts, newspaper articles, memoirs and artistic reviews in my line of research! It’s not even that it isn’t ‘edited’ in the most traditional sense. It’s not even that it’s sometimes wrong (though it sometimes is!).

The real reason is that it’s part of a large stack of reading, understanding and thinking that happens before you get down to the next stage of research. Wikipedia has it’s own take on this, which aligns closely with what I’m going to say here!

I’m going to call this ‘pre-research’ and everyone does it. If you aren’t regularly doing pre-research, that’s usually  because you aren’t moving into new fields much, and so you did your pre-research years ago. But most of us who teach need to do it regularly, and many of us who work in interdisciplinary fields have to do it a lot.

What is pre-research? Pre-research is the thing you do to get an idea of the lay of the land, to know what the field is, before you jump in to a deeper literature review. 

This is a long post because it turns out I have views. Strap yourselves in for a ride!


I. What is pre-research

Pre-research belongs to the ‘where is this mountain?’ stage of the research process.

One of the thing I really appreciated about my time as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge was how the course was really clear about what each kind of learning was for, so we got a lot of ‘meta’ knowledge about what we were doing as students. I use this knowledge a lot when I’m explaining things to other people–and I’m going to use it here.

Time machine back to the late 1990s…

There was a lot of ‘pre-research’ scaffolded into the cycle for each weekly research essay I wrote throughout my three-year degree. However, you never cited the the ‘pre-research’. 

For example, lectures were for the big picture. You went into a lecture knowing almost nothing about, say, John Donne, and walked out with a pretty good idea of who he was, what he is famous for, what he did, who else was doing it at the same time, who the major researchers in the field are and what the major debates are. 1 hour, excellent use of my time. However, it is not ‘done’ to quote lectures.

I would then go to the major reference books. For me, these are the Oxford Companion to English Literature, Grove Music, and the Dictionary of National Biography. Other disciplines might use a text book here. You might use an actual dictionary–to look up words you don’t know, or to understand how words were used in the period you are researching (historical and etymological dictionaries like the OED are best for this; or regional dictionaries like the Macquarie for Australian terms; or a foreign language dictionary.)
From these, I’d get a sense of the ‘generally agreed’ information about the topic. What does ‘everyone know’? This would usually take about an hour in the days when I had to go to the Library and consult either the paper version or the CD ROM. It takes much less time now I can access them online from home! However, it is not usually ‘done’ to quote encyclopaedias in academic writing.*

At this stage, I might have a conversation about it with my supervisor.  I selected my own essay question each week, so I needed to make a regular verbal mini-research proposal. My supervisor would then add in advice–things to read, recommendations about how to tighten up the question, or flagging potential issues with the idea. For a whole-term research project, I might discuss the issue with my supervisor more than once. These conversations were essential in my understanding, framing and research planning, but they weren’t ever quoted in my essays or dissertations.


Finally, I would go to the library to find scholarly books and articles, and to the archive to find primary sources. Because of the pre-research I had done, I already had a significant list of the scholarly books and articles that I would cite in my academic writing. 


II. So, why don’t we quote ‘pre-research’?

There are a lot of reasons why pre-research might not make it into your final written work. Here are five of the main ones that you should consider when making your decisions.

1. Pre-research is about ‘general knowledge’ and you don’t need a citation for general knowledge. 
We actually do all know that the sun rises in the east, Tuesday is a day of the week, a meter is 1,000cm.

2. As ‘general knowledge’ is settled, pre-research is not a place for debates. (This is why you don’t put original research up on Wikipedia.)
Academic writing, however, is a place to put forward arguments and to have debates. The ‘conversation’ you are having is with other scholars, not with the general public. (You may want to write in a way that the general public can understand; and you may also get involved with things like impact, mass-market publishing, blogging, scicomms, or even writing Wikipedia articles… but this is not what academic scholarly publishing is primarily for). You aren’t usually in conversation with encyclopaedias.

3. Because academic writing is a map, not a description of your journey.
I don’t care about how long it took you to pack your rucksack and how many times you got lost, I want to load up your work and get quickly to the destination. This means lots of things that you used to get oriented don’t need to take up your word count and other people’s time.

4. Because encyclopaedias and lectures are high-school-level stuff.
I did quote encylopedias and dictionaries in my high school essays, and that was appropriate, since high school is about getting a basic working understanding of the world in a way that prepares you for adult life and university.
There are many times since leaving high school, though, where I have needed a refresher or the equivalent of a week in class, to get my head around the basics of a new topic, perhaps because I’m teaching a class on a new text, or I’m working on a field of research that overlaps with another field that I’m more hazy on.
Wikipedia is great in two ways here: firstly it gives me an easy overview of ‘Who, what, where, when, why, how?’ that I can use to orient myself; and two, it helps me put difficult information where I am an expert into easy to understand terms for an undergraduate who is meeting the concept or text for the first time.

5. Because pre-research is usually quick, and so it is often shallow, perfunctory, or highly condensed.
Having written encylopedia articles (like this one), I’m really aware of how much you have to leave out. That means that someone who just had a conversation, went to a lecture or read a Wikipedia article has a very limited understanding of the field. Sometimes that limitation means they actually misunderstand the full issue, but even if they are correct, their understanding is not deep and robust enough to stand up to the kinds of scrutiny that we expect of a peer-reviewed article or examined thesis.



III. Conclusions

When I’m talking to undergraduates, I usually put it like this:

Wikipedia is like talking to your smart friend over a cup of coffee. They really help you to understand the area, but when it comes to putting it down for an assignment you need to go deeper, and be more precise.

If I wanted an answer that I could get from Wikipedia… I shouldn’t be asking that in a university setting. I certainly shouldn’t be asking a question at that level in a research higher degree or in my ongoing academic research. But to start answering that more complex question, I might start with some basic building blocks, and if I include Wikipedia in those building blocks, I’ll be fine.


IV. The caveat that is actually a footnote.

* CAVEAT: When do you quote an encyclopaedia or dictionary in your research?

I would only quote the dictionary in very obscure cases, perhaps (as I have done recently) to argue for a reading of ‘absolute’ in Ezra Pound’s ‘absolute rhythm’ to mean ‘free’–using Chaucer and the OED as evidence.

If, like me, you are interested in networks of artists, not all of the people in the room are important enough to have a whole biography or even an academic article, so a source that you can quote that gives you the basics is a blessing. Grove and the DNB can provide a well-researched snippet article about minor players.  Sometimes, it is appropriate to quote a conversation or email (usually as ‘personal communication’), for example for history of recent events. It is in these contexts, and these contexts only, that an internet source like  Wikipedia might be quoted in an academic article: that is, you have looked everywhere in the world for information and the only source that you can find is there. This is more likely for pop-culture or non-Anglophone research.


So, there you have it. Nearly 2,000 words on Wikipedia, pre-research and citation. Do you use Wikipedia for your research? What do you tell your students? I’d love to hear about how this works for you!


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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