Tldr – Archiving, screenshots, videos, Google Chrome’s “Print as PDF” and other techniques allow proper citation of Wikipedia articles.
Wikipedia is an amazing aggregation of information. Usually it has a combination of balanced scholarship, thorough sourcing and in-depth information. While that does not hold for all of their pages, and while some of the sources are dramatically less reliable than academic or other sources, it is still an exceptional starting point for anyone seeking to gain a good introduction to nearly any well-known topic.
The beauty of Wikipedia is also its curse: Anyone can edit it! It is dynamic. There are some restrictions and safeguards in place to be sure, but the underlying principal of this issue is not addressed by them. The underlying principal of the issue is that, if the article is used as a source, it may change by the time the reference is sought as verification by a reader. I may say, “According to Wikipedia, Dolphins are a purple-grey color.” It may even say that on the page. Perhaps there was only one dolphin ever photographed and it appeared a purple-grey color in the photo. Perhaps then a multitude of dolphin discoveries are made and photographed and it turns out they are all blue and the picture, previously considered as the cutting-edge of dolphin research, had been found erroneous. Perhaps they found the purple-grey appearance was only the work of that particular camera model, the lighting that day, a thin layer of grenadine on the lens, or whatever.
What’s worse is that the dynamic nature of its pages lend plausible deniability to liars! I could make up fictitious information about Mitt Romney and cite Wikipedia. If someone comes and says, “Hey, you used a false source because Wikipedia says no such thing. Are you lying?” I could respond, “I’m sorry! I really thought it was true, and it did say that on Wikipedia at one point in time, but I guess it has been edited out since then.” On the other hand, perhaps no one ever checks my source. So I have a risk-less opportunity to perpetuate whatever garbage I see fit.
As a response to these two issues, Wikipedia has many times been looked down upon or even flatly forbidden as an academic reference. This is a huge missed opportunity, but there is a way to address this issue. We can turn these dynamic pages into static ones. There are several way this can be done and some are rather simple. The two essential features are that we create a cloud-based static document and that we can time-stamp the document. Here are my top 5 ways that we can properly cite Wikipedia:
1) Wikipedia Permanent Link and Other Methods of Online Archiving
James Redford noted in a comment to an earlier version of this article that Wikipedia and other online sites often allow for creation of static pages via archiving. For example, Wikipedia has a menu entitled “Toolbox” that enables retrieval of citation information including a permanent link to that particular revision of that particular page. Wikipedia also has a record of changes made to each version which allows us to detect trends over time in what is written! Other great sources for archiving stable versions of webpages include website and Archive.is.
2) Copy and Paste the Text
You can simply copy the text and dump it to another source, then cite that source. It could be a blog or a text document that you upload to the cloud. The simplicity of this feature is made less attractive by at least one drawback. When you copy and paste large chunks they may be poorly formatted and require some clean up. Be sure to include the references Wiki uses, and realize that any bad information in the article will be blamed on you, not Wikipedia, since there is very little proof that you did not write the thing yourself. Often times if you are going to stick to text, you might just look over the sources Wiki references and write a short article yourself, then cite that article, referencing the same sources Wiki referenced, but omitting reference of Wikipedia.
3) Google Print to PDF
One nice feature here is that when you print directly from a Wiki page using Google Chrome’s “Save as PDF” feature the document is automatically time-stamped. Here is an example from Wikipedia’s page on the Federalist Papers.
Screenshots are useful because the technology is built in to most Operating Systems without the need for additional software. Furthermore it can be useful to have a diverse array of file types for this technique. While Chrome PDF is one, screenshots allow for saving to all manner of image files. Two drawbacks would be that if you are going to screenshot an entire Wiki page it may take an album’s worth of screenshots, and that you may accidentally screenshot something else on your screen which was not meant to be.
5) Screen Capture Videos
Videos are particularly resilient to manipulation, which may or may not be helpful because any of these can be faked with enough effort. The question is not so much whether the source is valid as whether the information contained is true, although these questions are often related. Videos can capture a long article more quickly than screenshots. They can also be readily uploaded to sites like YouTube where other kinds of file formats are not supported. Finally, you are able to overlay audio on top of the video which can be extremely helpful in some cases. Be sure not to scroll too quickly, utilize zooming if necessary to read the text in the article, be sure to record the sources, try to record a time-stamp in the video and try not to record information on your computer you don’t want people seeing. If you don’t record a time-stamp that’s alright, but be sure to upload to a source that can time-stamp in that case. I recommend the free and open source CamStudio for this. Here is an example of this technology used to record the same Federalist Paper document linked as a PDF example above:
Camstudio outputs in AVI format by default. AVI has an extremely large file size and you may want to convert to MP4 or similar.
Take these and upload them to a cloud source such as MEGA, DropBox, YouTube, Imgur, a blog, a torrent or another source and be sure to try and get a source with a time-stamp in order to increase reliability of your source.
In conclusion there are several ways to properly cite Wikipedia. You can even use these techniques on other dynamic information sources. This will make it easier to increase the reliability of the information inside of non-academic writing and maybe even lead to an academically accepted process of citing dynamic information sources!