I am sure if you are reading this, you have run into issues with Wikipedia on determining what makes a source reliable for Wikipedia.
Maybe you had a draft declined or your edit reverted, while at the same time being told sources you used are not reliable.
A decade ago, it was easy to determine. You simply picked the largest media companies and figured they were acceptable. However, we live in the age of disinformation where not all large media outlets can be considered reliable.
Over the years, Wikipedia has become stricter on what it considers a reliable source. So much so that even some sources can be reliable and non-reliable at the same time depending on what they are writing about.
It can be confusing when you start down the rabbit hole of guidelines on Wikipedia. So, I am going to map out the ways you can use to determine reliable sources for Wikipedia. Whether it’s at a noticeboard or through a reliable source list for Wikipedia, you will be able to exhaust all your options within this guide.
Overview of Reliable Sources:
Wikipedia is an open-source encyclopedia. This means it can be edited by anyone who wishes to participate.
This is a great theory, as it can help grow a website quickly. However, it can cause problems if participants contribute in bad faith.
In order to maintain its quality, accuracy, and verifiability of content, Wikipedia has implemented best practices for using reliable sources. These practices are in the form of guidelines, policies, essays, and noticeboards to assist editors who contribute.
The rules for determining the reliability of a source are quite lengthy. But, Wikipedia generally looks at the following to make that decision:
Independent sources are crucial for Wikipedia articles. These are sources that have no direct connection or affiliation with the topic of the article being edited. Independence is important as you want to make sure the source is not influenced to say something more positive about the topic than is due.
Verifiability is important with a reliable source. If people cannot verify what a source says, then why should they believe what Wikipedia says about it is correct? Note that verifiability does not mean truth. Wikipedia mainly cares that information can be traced to that source. After all, it is not a publisher of original information.
The reputation of a source is also considered. In the last few years, many publications that were once considered reliable by Wikipedia are no longer. This is because they have consistently shown they have low or no editorial standards. Or, they fail to abide by the editorial standards they set for themselves.
A source can be considered reliable only after it shows it is consistent and accurate. This means that while they may run retractions from time to time, they are very consistent with publishing facts. Accuracy also means that it publishes information that it fact-checks as opposed to filing its site with opinions of various writers.
How credible is the source? Does it use staff writers or contributors? Is the source mentioned in other media as being inaccurate? This all comes down to credibility.
Wikipedia Reliable Source List:
One of the easiest ways to check for a reliable source for Wikipedia is to use a reliable source list for Wikipedia.
And yes, Wikipedia maintains such a list.
Known as the perennial source, it includes a number of media outlets that have been determined reliable (or not) through discussion and consensus. These sources are normally the ones that are contentious. They have been discussed to exhaustion so eventually they make the list after a group of editors voice their opinion one way or another.
Before you use this list as an authority, I want to warn you. Just because a source is on the list does not mean it won’t be challenged. This is the great thing about Wikipedia. Things constantly change and so does the list.
Also, if a source is NOT on the list, this doesn’t mean it isn’t reliable.
Think of the list like Supreme Court decisions. These are the ones that made it to court even though many others have been previously discussed (more about this in the next section).
Community Discussion on Reliable Sources:
Wikipedia maintains several noticeboards where the community can discuss policies and guidelines. One such noticeboard is the “reliable source noticeboard.”
The board is a vital part of the community as its where editor can discuss the reliability of sources. It is a public forum where anyone can opine and place where you will likely find the answer to what determines a reliable source for Wikipedia.
It can sometimes get contentious during discussions. However, it is a great place to go if you have a question about a reference that is not on the list of references cited in the previous section.
Here is how the noticeboard operates:
- Post an Inquiry – An editor will post an inquiry about a specific source, asking the community for its input on whether they feel it is reliable to be used in Wikipedia.
- Discussion – Editors will weigh in with their opinions, arguing for or against its use based on things discussed here previously, including reliability, independence, etc.
- Building Consensus – The discussion will start to lead in one direction for either using or not using the source.
- Decision – One there is enough discussion and there is clear consensus, the source can either be used or not.
How to Use the Reliable Source Noticeboard:
If you do not find a discussion on the reference you are looking to use, you can always start a discussion as a new topic.
As with everything in Wikipedia, decisions made at the reliable source noticeboard are not binding.
They are only guidance and can change if a source is challenged again. For instance, some publications have been promoted and demoted numerous times through the history of Wikipedia.
If a source has been discussed enough on the noticeboard, it may eventually make it to the reliable source list for Wikipedia described in the previous section.
Using Wikipedia as a Reliable Source:
As a professional Wikipedia editor, one question I get asked a lot is if Wikipedia can be used as a reference for other Wikipedia pages?
Answer is “absolutely not.”
Wikipedia refers to this as circular referencing.
“Do not use articles from Wikipedia (whether English Wikipedia or Wikipedias in other languages) as sources, since Wikipedia is a user-generated source.” – Wikipedia policy of verifiability
Since Wikipedia is a summary of what is said in the media, you should go to the original media if you want to cite information in Wikipedia.
Yes, there are rare exceptions to this rule but the exception is so limited it isn’t even worth discussion.
Press Releases and Reliability:
Press releases are not generally considered reliable as a source for Wikipedia.
However, that doesn’t mean they cannot be used.
First, you should know that never have I ever seen an instance where a press release can be used to show notability of a topic. And if you think of the policies discussed earlier, this makes perfect sense.
After all, anyone can send a press release. So, it would be easy to send out a few press releases and then use them to create a Wikipedia page.
Here are the reasons why press releases are not considered reliable:
- Lack of Independence – Press releases are not considered independent as they are created by the subject of the press release. The lack of independence creates bias as the person issuing the press release is only going to say good things about themselves.
- Promotional – Press releases contain promotional language, often exaggerating or emphasizing the information they present. This is in direct conflict with Wikipedia guidelines on neutrality.
Now, I said that press release can be used in certain circumstances.
- Direct Attribution – Press release can be used to source a statement attributed to the person making the release. Quotes by an individual are a good example.
- Uncontroversial Information – Press releases can be used if the information it is citing is uncontroversial. This could include things such as a company name change, product release, or someone’s employment.
Note, while there is an exemption to use press releases, editors will often remove them anyway if you try to add them. As such, I advise clients to avoid them altogether.
When in doubt, try to find a more reliable source or simply avoid adding the content if a press release is the only available source.
Sources That Can Be Both Reliable and Unreliable:
I want to talk a little bit about a confusing topic related to reliable sources.
There are times where a source can be both reliable and unreliable. While this doesn’t come up often, it is something to be aware of.
A great example is Forbes and Entrepreneur. Two great publications that each have Wikipedia pages of their own.
Unfortunately, each article cited from each needs to be given consideration to who wrote it.
Here is why.
Both allow contributors to submit content. This became prevalent in the 2010s when online publications wanted more content for their websites.
The issue is that both sites relax editorial guidelines for contributors. So, an article written by a contributor may have no editorial review while articles written by staff writers have full editorial review.
As such, those written by contributors are generally not allowed on Wikipedia.
Here is another example:
Some publications have been shown to report neutrally on some topics while being biased on others. So, Wikipedia only considers them reliable for certain topics.
The Huffington Post is one of these publications. Here is how it is used in Wikipedia:
- Considered a reliable source for everything EXCEPT politics
- Not reliable for politics related to the United States
- No consensus on using it for international politics
- Cannot be used if written by a contributor (based on same reasoning provided for Forbes and Entrepreneur).
Final Word on What Constitutes a Reliable Source:
A reliable source on Wikipedia can sometimes be difficult to determine. You may need to cross check the reference with the reliable source list for Wikipedia or ask for an opinion on the reliable source noticeboard.
Even if a publication is considered notable, there is a chance the specific article from that publication may be considered unreliable. Never use a press release and always try to find the best source available in order to avoid any challenges to what you are trying to add.