The Tag Wiki for says:

The answers should be based on current, undisputed science. This means no subjective sciences. Ideally, answers should be backed up by equations, relevant theories, and citations where possible - arXiv can be quite good for citations, though Wikipedia is usually OK too.

This actually suggests using Wikipedia as a citation.

While Wikipedia is an excellent and useful research tool it has a number of problems, for example:

  • Pages can be changed after the link is made making the link no longer relevant or now pointing to incorrect data.
  • Data on Wikipedia can be incorrect, even when it seems to have supporting articles. (See Citogenesis)
  • Wikipedia is by definition never a primary source, it is data from other sources compiled together in a convenient way. In general pointing to the primary source gives a clearer link and less chance of part of the information being lost or changed along the way.

On he other hand though Wikipedia does have excellent, well researched, well written, and helpful pages and articles.

So what should our policy be? Do we embrace Wikipedia? Spurn it? Try to find a best of both worlds middle ground? If the latter then where should we draw the line?

Additionally should that tag wiki be edited to reflect our new Wikipedia policy and if so what should the new wording be?

  • $\begingroup$ I might suggest that if it's on Wikipedia, then it's on the asker to have checked there already, especially for hard-science questions. So maybe you can use Wikipedia to make sure everyone's on the same page, but it should not be your sole source of information. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ @DaaaahWhoosh It's not always that simple. Often Wikipedia may have part of the answer that needs combining with something else for a full answer, or the answer might be there but found in an unexpected way, etc. There are certainly valid circumstances to want to link to Wikipedia. The question is whether we should be doing so. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 15:32

2 Answers 2


Let me go on a bit of a tangent here.

One thing that's always bugged me about Worldbuilding Stack Exchange is that we don't have a large community of experts. Now, really, really early on in Stack Exchange's life, Jeff Atwood (co-founder of Stack Exchange) wrote

The idea that you have all these experts waiting in the wings to do stuff is an illusion in my experience. There's really just a bunch of amateurs muddling along trying to do things together.

This works on a lot of sites, and in fact, I would argue that virtually no Stack Exchange site - Math Overflow excluded, especially as it was originally from outside Stack Exchange - needs to be a community composed solely of, or even mostly of, experts. I mean, what's the point? You need people of all levels, with all different types of knowledge, with all different backgrounds and areas of interest.

At the same token, you do need people of all levels of experience, and on Worldbuiding, we don't have them all. Don't get me wrong, we have a lot of very smart people doing very smart things, but we don't really have a non-negligibly small set of biologists, or physicists, or geologists. We do have some people - and thank you, thank you, for your contributions; you know who you are - who work in scientific fields and are generous to spend some of their time here on Worldbuilding, sharing their knowledge, but they're something of an endangered species.

This is why I've been pushing and pushing the tag for so long. The first Artificial Intelligence site was shut down because it didn't have expert-level questions - or answers, which is my focus here. Now, we can afford to totally through away the tag, burn it, and never look back, because the majority of our questions don't need it. But some do. And if we don't have a large expert community on our site, where do we go? Those who actually do the stuff we're talking about.

Fortunately enough, we have something called The Internet at our disposal. In less than thirty seconds, assuming my Wi-Fi isn't on the fritz, I can sit down and open up half a dozen scientific papers on a certain subject (true fact, by the way). I can scroll through scientists' websites and blogs (cough cough Sean Raymond cough cough) and get their thoughts on issues they work on each day. I can read and think and calculate and learn.

See, the Internet is more than just Wikipedia. Knowledge - real, true, verified, honest-to-goodness knowledge, not this stuff - lies beyond its borders. Even if you want to simply start at a Wikipedia article, it has references and citations and links to additional reading. Information on Wikipedia comes from somewhere. The scientists don't just do an experiment and then type it into a Wikipedia article. They experiment and they write and they publish in a journal.

That is where you should be going first. If you find a Wikipedia article, it either has

  • Good citations that you can follow through and read, or
  • Crappy or nonexistent citations, in which case you should doubt the validity of the article

Both ways, you have better options at your disposal than just linking to the Wikipedia page. You can either read the primary sources cited there - the papers, the code behind the models, the diagrams of experiments, the data - or you can start elsewhere, or not answer at all.

Some, I'd guess, would argue that it can be tough to slog through a couple of ten page papers when you're going to be writing maybe a three or four paragraph answer, especially if they're dense, esoteric, and hard to read. I get that. I love to read, but there's only so much I can do in one sitting. But my response to that is that if you're not willing to do the research, or if you can't understand the papers themselves, you should not be writing an answer. If you cite a source and base your answer on it, you should be able to repackage some of that information into a more palatable form for the curious passerby. If you don't know enough to do that, you shouldn't write the answer.

Let me discuss an example. Last spring, a popular question hit the Hot Network Questions list. One answer (which I won't discuss the specifics of) quoted verbatim the abstract of a paper, linked to it, added a one sentence explanation, and promptly got over 60 upvotes, bringing it to the top of the page (note: this was not a question).

A few people questioned its validity in comments on it, myself included. A couple of us - literally, two - downvoted it, and most moved on. I did a bit of digging, because the answer was so absurd that all my intuition said it must be false. Two months of intermittent research, coding, computing - easily the most work I've ever done on a Stack Exchange post - showed me that the paper was from a vanity publishing firm, the authors copied part of it from Wikipedia without citation, they know nothing about the field, misapplied half their equations, and contradicted 70 years of scientific results.

It turns out that the writer of the answer hadn't read the paper he or she cited, had no idea how the authors reached their conclusions, did no background research on the subject and did not bother to check the claims therein. Yet the net score is over 60.

This is an example where someone didn't check the source of the information they were citing. The same has happened - though, in my opinion, less dramatically - to answers citing just Wikipedia. The authors didn't bother to check the references of conclusions therein - if there were any references - and wrote answers that were completely wrong.

This is why we need to not just cut Wikipedia from being a valid source for the tag, but to get people to reference primary sources more. This means that people will actually have to check the information themselves, learn (or show that they already know, preferable) the concepts and ideas involved, and ensure that their conclusions are valid. If not, we're going to get answers that are not even wrong, as Wolfgang Pauli would say.

Plus - perhaps even more importantly - as I said earlier, there's no excuse for citing Wikipedia. Either you read the primary sources and cite those, or you don't reference the article because it's of dubious validity. It's not a hard decision.

So I vote that we not allow Wikipedia to be used as a main source in answers. If you use Wikipedia, it just doesn't count. I also suggest that we change the tag wiki, which contains the section

The answers should be based on current, undisputed science. This means no subjective sciences. Ideally, answers should be backed up by equations, relevant theories, and citations where possible - arXiv can be quite good for citations, though Wikipedia is usually OK too.

I propose we change this part to

The answers should be based on current, undisputed science. This means no subjective scientific ideas. Ideally, answers should be backed up by equations, relevant theories, and citations where possible - arXiv can be quite good for citations of preprints, although they may not be peer-reviewed.

Wikipedia is not acceptable as a main source in a answer because it can be inaccurate or poorly referenced; answerers should go to the effort of finding the original papers on a topic, reading them, and citing them in an answer.

Perhaps we could also add something on popular science, which I wrote about in this answer.

  • $\begingroup$ Well written. Wikipedia is undoubtedly a great resource, and I would almost always start there. But for hard-science questions I think it best to then follow the trail so to speak and review the source material not the potentially amateur consolidation of content from un-verified sources. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 15:59

The problem of wikipedia isn't it's inaccuracy (which there is a ton) with regard to World Building. People generally don't know how to source and will take whatever they think sounds good to begin with, no matter how accurate or inaccurate it is. Wikipedia, does usually require a source somewhere so you can check into where the information is coming from. Some pages are indeed so pedanticly moderated about following these rules that there are several stories by famous people who have attempted to fix inaccuracies in their own pages about them, but were rejected over and over again, but I think most of those are the minority and most articles do give a generally faithful overview of the topic they are purporting to give credible information on.

The real issue is not expertise or ameteur. The issue is that lots of these sites have experts or people who can copy and paste expert level information, but there is often a miscommunication because the experts and the laymen are not speaking at the same level. Linking a site like wikipedia and posting its info in the answer does me no good if I can't understand that information. You may say all day that its right there, and it may well be, but more than likely, if I'm asking the question, those answers go way over my head, at least in terms of the details. And likewise if an Expert is asking, the layman probably isn't interpretting the question right because the expert is leaving many things out that they assume you likely know.

This why the important point in answering questions, especially in world building topics, is not to answer with long strings of math, figures, etc, but to try to explain those sources in a way that would make sense to a layman without that stuff. If someone doesn't understand the answer, they are not being answered is what I think, so in that vein those sources should only ever be supplementary to give more detailed data, but never as a primary source of answering.

TL;DR - copy and pasting should almost never be done. Explaining at a low layman level, with links or pasted info from a source as supplementary further reading beyond the base answer, should be the norm.

Using this reasoning then wiki is a good source due to it having citations to other sources where as Quora or a stand alone article (whether a terrible source or from a peer reviewed site) would be worse, because they arent as stringent about citing sources, or are harder to find for the layman.

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    $\begingroup$ I think that this speaks truth, but doesn't actually tackle the question at hand. $\endgroup$
    – Ranger
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ @NexTerren Well, since you're only using a link a supplement, not as the answer, then something like wiki is a good source due to it having citations to other sources where as Quora or a stand alone article (whether a terrible source or from a peer reviewed site) would be worse, because they arent as stringent about citing sources, or are harder to find for the layman. $\endgroup$
    – Durakken
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 17:21
  • $\begingroup$ I'd go ahead and formally include that view in your answer. From what I gather you're saying that an appropriate Wikipedia quote is better than an appropriate academic/other source because Wikipedia is traditionally more understandable/easier to digest by the layman. If that's your view, you should allow people to show their support/disagreement. $\endgroup$
    – Ranger
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 17:39

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