How do Wikipedia editors decide what are reliable sources?

Public domain image by user:Julo

Over the past few weeks, Wikimedia UK has received a large number of press inquiries related to the Guardian’s article ‘Wikipedia bans Daily Mail as ‘unreliable’ source’. Now that the dust has settled on this story a little, we thought it might be helpful to clarify how the community of editors who create Wikipedia and its sister projects came to adopt a policy to generally avoid using references to Daily Mail articles.

Much of the coverage of this editorial decision, both by The Guardian and by other media, referred to Wikipedia at least as often as Wikipedia editors; although The Guardian did add that ‘The move is likely to stop short of prohibiting linking to the Daily Mail’, because as many Wikimedians will be fully aware, one of the Five Pillars of Wikipedia is that ‘Wikipedia has no firm rules’.

‘Wikipedia bans the Daily Mail’ is pretty much the headline which every media outlet went with for this story.

We at Wikimedia UK recognise that there is often confusion between the UK charity and the Wikimedia Foundation based in the United States, as well as the relationship between the Wikimedia movement, chapters like Wikimedia UK, and the open knowledge websites owned by the Foundation including Wikipedia. Often, people do not even realise that Wikileaks, Julian Assange’s website (which is not in fact based on a wiki structure) has nothing to do with Wikimedia.

Unfortunately, talking about ‘Wikipedia does X’ tends to give the public the impression that Wikipedia is a unitary body run by a company, and this is what will stick in people’s minds, even if the article itself includes a more complex analysis. In a world that is commercialised and run for profit, the very concept of a decentralised, open source encyclopaedia whose infrastructure is administered by a non-profit charity can seem difficult to understand for many.

While it is true to say that it’s rare for publications to be singled out as unreliable, it has generally been the case that established policy guidelines such as those on Identifying Reliable Sources (also known as WP:RS) have served the purpose of ensuring that poor references do not creep in. For example, ‘self-published media [like blogs, forum posts] are largely not acceptable.’

The wider point here is worth noting: Wikipedia editors have long deprecated the use of tabloid articles as references. Wikipedia guidelines on potentially unreliable sources (WP:PUS) states that:

The point about notability is particularly important here. Lots of people want to start articles about things that aren’t ‘Wikipedia worthy’, like celebrities, their mum, cat, friend or the time in school where they pulled a prank that was totally rad back in the 90s. Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia. It’s not a place to collect celebrity facts, and there needs to be some filtering out of things that aren’t widely important or influential.

It’s also worth noting that the reliable sources (WP:RS) guidelines state that,

Wikipedia articles (and Wikipedia mirrors) are not reliable sources for any purpose (except as sources on themselves per WP:SELFSOURCE). Because Wikipedia forbids original research, there is nothing reliable in it that is not citable with something else.’

When it comes to sources for medical articles, the rules are even more stringent (WM:MEDRS). Wikipedia editors want to protect and ensure the site’s reputation for reliability, and to do that, the standards for referencing need to be very high.

Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects are complex creations which have accumulated as the result of millions of human work hours. As such, they can be quite opaque for most users of Wikipedia who only engage with the site’s surface by reading the articles. These articles comprise only around 30% of the entire number of pages on Wikipedia, compared to another 70% which is made up of the discussion pages, policy documents and guidelines intended to help editors decide what should go into the articles themselves.

It is quite hard to understand how these parts all work together unless you get involved in editing yourself, and particularly in the discussion pages behind the articles. The ethos of the site is based on consensus and discussion with the aim of taking a neutral stance on contentious issues.

Despite this, the content of the site is influenced by the interests of those who edit it. The majority of the editors are white, European or North American and male. This means that the content reflects their interests more than those of, for example, black or Latino women.

If people who read the Daily Mail believe that Wikipedia editors are biased, they are more than welcome to get involved in editing Wikimedia projects. As long as they follow the guidelines on Neutral Point of View (NPoV), good referencing and assuming the good intentions of other editors, they are free to argue that the Daily Mail is in fact an accurate source for referencing factual information.

That’s how Wikipedia works, and we would be more than happy to have the 1.49 million daily readers of the Mail involved in improving the volume and accuracy of content on Wikipedia.