Wikipedia Reliable Sources Policy: What Counts as a “Reliable Source” on Wikipedia?

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We explain "Reliable Sources." At over 6,000 words, it's one of the most counterintuitive policies on Wikipedia

One of the critical building blocks of Wikipedia is the reliable sources policy. This article is an overview of the policy. It includes analysis explaining how we see it applied on a daily basis in the context of participating on Wikipedia when making proposal as a user with a “conflict of interest’ . 

We spend enormous amounts of time at our agency every day researching and discussing how various types of sources should be treated under this policy. Finding a strong reliable source is often what determines whether or not a request to update a page will be accepted. The “Reliable Sources” policy plays a role in shaping the content and quality of Wikipedia articles. 

Unfortunately, the policy can be highly counter-intuitive. Newcomers to Wikipedia who haven’t studied the > 6000 word policy are not going to be able to use common sense to guess how it’s applied. Sources that you might think are highly reliable are usually not allowed (like a legal filing), whereas sources that you might consider less reliable are allowed (like a small newspaper’s superficial story about the legal filing.)

Why are secondary sources preferred over primary sources on Wikipedia?

Editors who contribute to Wikipedia are expected to cite sources that meet strict standards of accuracy, credibility, and trustworthiness. According to Wikipedia, these standards are meant to ensure that the content published there is based on verifiable facts rather than personal opinion or conjecture. That said, Wikipedia does not trust its thousands of volunteer editors to interpret “primary sources.” Instead, it’s required that facts requiring even the slightest interpretation (including whether they are important enough to be included in a Wikipedia page) be verified by a trusted secondary source. 

The reliable sources and verification policies are far more important to Wikipedia to determine whether a fact belongs on a page than the actual truth. This is a source of endless frustration to the subjects of articles who wish to correct or add facts that they cannot verify with sources that meet Wikipedia’s criteria. 

Wikipedia also forbids users from presenting their own viewpoints or research about a subject. Users are not allowed to summarize or interpret primary sources like historical documents, interviews, or court transcripts. Instead, users are asked to rely on secondary sources which are typically articles written by a journalist or author independent of the subject of the page. Any content used to support a fact must appear in a publication that is independent and has a reputation for editorial credibility – that requirement excludes content like most blogs, highly narrow trade journals, or stories written by contributors who are not journalists. 

What are some examples of reliable secondary sources?

  • Articles written by staff journalists in national and large regional publications. Publications from smaller regions are also acceptable, but they tend to carry less weight than large, well-known publications. Very small publications, like neighborhood newspapers, will usually not be accepted as they typically do not have a reputation for editorial credibility.
  • Books published by an independent third party. Self-published works, or books published by an institution that has a vested interest in the subject matter, are not allowed.
  • Peer-reviewed academic journals. These journals are typically esteemed within their respective fields and undergo a rigorous review process where experts in the field assess the quality, validity, and significance of the research before publication. 

Journals should also:

o   Be indexed in well-established academic databases, such as PubMed, Scopus, Web of Science, or JSTOR. Being indexed in these databases indicates that the journal meets certain quality criteria and is recognized within the academic community.

o   Be relevant to the discipline covered in the Wikipedia article. For example, a journal specializing in psychology would be an appropriate source for an article about psychological research.

Clients are often surprised by which sources are not considered reliable by Wikipedia. This can be especially confusing because many sources that aren’t allowed are published or produced by reputable news organizations. These sources include:

  • Magazine or newspaper interviews conducted in a Q&A format.
  •  Podcasts
  •  Broadcast interviews

Wikipedia’s view is that a person’s words in an unfiltered interview are not subject to the same journalistic vetting or editorial scrutiny as written articles. Therefore, the information presented in these kinds of interviews is not considered reliable by Wikipedia. The same principle applies to transcripts from courts or congressional hearings. If the information isn’t filtered through an editorial process, it can’t be used as a source on Wikipedia. By that same logic, sources like personal blogs, social media posts, and websites that are not journalistic publications also can’t be used on Wikipedia. 

Even content that is published by a reputable source can be deemed biased toward a subject and therefore can’t be used as a reliable source. For example, an op-ed or opinion column, even when authored by a journalist, can’t always be trusted to present facts in a neutral manner. 

One of the trickiest concepts to understand is undisclosed paid content. Forbes magazine, for example, is notorious for publishing paid content that is almost indistinguishable from its editorial content. As a result, Wikipedia editors will not accept any Forbes article written by a contributor rather than a staff journalist. Editors will likewise reject press releases that have been dressed up as journalism. News aggregators and trade publications will often publish lightly rewritten press releases that, at first glance, look like a legitimate article. But Wikipedia editors are very savvy when it comes to weeding out these sources. Certain sources require a very careful reading to determine whether or not they should be included.

Sources that have an obvious bias toward their subject, such as press releases, articles or columns written by the subject, personal websites and company websites, are primary sources and therefore largely considered to be unreliable on Wikipedia. In some instances, a primary source can be used to confirm very basic facts, such as age, location, or number of employees.  

And finally, reliable sources themselves are subject to an ongoing evaluation by volunteer editors. Editors engage in lengthy discussions to reach consensus about the reliability of sources. Consensus is constantly evolving and a source that was considered reliable at one point in time isn’t necessarily reliable at present. Often, editors will assign caveats to sources, deeming them reliable in some circumstances but not in others. Experienced Wikipedia editors spend countless hours following the discussions that form consensus in order to stay up-to-date on the status of reliable sources. 

Why a comprehensive understanding of reliable sources is critical:

The use of reliable sources constitutes one of the Five Pillars of Wikipedia. Anyone who contributes to Wikipedia should understand how to use reliable sources as the foundation of their input. Attempting to edit Wikipedia – either by making changes to existing pages or creating a new page altogether – without the proper use of reliable sources will signal to editors that you haven’t taken the time to research Wikipedia policies. 

How Can WhiteHatWiki Help?

We are an agency that specializes in “white hat” consulting in “conflict of interest” (COI) situations. Proposing a new page, or updates to an existing page about you, your company, family, friends, clients, employers, personal financial interests, and other external relationships constitutes a COI. Public disclosure of the COI is mandatory; and direct publishing or editing of pages is not allowed. WHW can work with qualified clients to create a draft or proposal that will abide by Wikipedia’s labyrinth of policies to the satisfaction of Wikipedia’s tough, independent reviewers.

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