Wikipedia’s citation mess and how to cope

Joseph Reagle


Wikipedia citations and bibliographies are a confusing mess. Most beginners suffice with the Visual Editor, which leads to bloated wikitext in the source editor. If you ever use the source editor and don’t want this bloat, I recommend an alternative: instead of inline references in the prose, keep references at the end of the page.

Inline References (in the Prose)

Simple Approach

Any text that appears within <ref> tags are collected and appear in place of the <references/> tag at the end of the article. In the example below, someone created a note with a manually formatted reference.

It's a great book.<ref>Kress, Nancy, (2011), *Beggars in Spain: 
The Novella*, Rockville, MD: Phoenix Pick, ISBN 978-1-6124-2057-8</ref>

The problems with this approach are that (1) finding such references scattered among prose makes the prose difficult to read and edit, (2) should you want to change the formatting (e.g., make the title sentence case) you have to manually edit it, and (3) should you need to cite the same thing later, you must duplicate it or use the name attribute.

BTW: <ref> isn’t really about references; it’s for endnotes more generally and it just so happens most people use them for references.

Citation Templates

Wikipedia does have a referencing system via templates that are indicated via a keyword appearing within double curly braces, such as {{citation}}. (It doesn’t matter if it capitalized or not.) This permits you to enter reference data in a structured way in fields like title, publisher, and year which Wikipedia will expand and format; if it appears within <ref> tag it will also appear in an endnote.

It's a great book.<ref>{{Citation | last1 = Kress | first1 = Nancy 
| title = Beggars in Spain: The Novella | year = 2011 
| publisher = Phoenix Pick | location = Rockville, MD |
| isbn = 978-1-6124-2057-8}}</ref>

This is what citations from the VisualEditor will look like. Again, trying to edit and read wikitext in the source editor with these blobs scattered amongst the prose is awful.

References at End

I’m going to skip all the weird and confusing ways people cite things at Wikipedia.

Yet Another Standard

Instead, I’m going to explain how sensible markup languages like LaTeX and Markdown do it and provide the Wikipedia analog.

Advanced Approach: {{sfn}}

I don’t like page numbers appearing in citations rather than the bibliography. To counteract this, you can use a similar notes at the end technique with the short-foot-note {{[sfn]}} template. This requires you to edit in the source editor most of the time, which I do, but most people don’t.

I love the description of the sleepless{{sfn|Kress2011bsn|loc=p. 45}} 
and of their philosophy{{sfn|Kress2011bsn|loc=p. 78}}.



* {{citation | ref = {{sfnref|Kress2011bsn}}
| first1 = Nancy
| last1 =  Kress
| title = Beggars in Spain: The novella
| date = 2011
| isbn = 9781612420578
| publication-place = Rockville, MD
| publisher = Phoenix Pick
| url =
| accessdate = 14 July 2016


In this document I use the following terms:

An external source of content, such as a book, journal article, television show, etc.
A description of a source, often including data such as the author, title, and date published. This is rendered in a particular style.
Text that is complementary to the prose, sometimes appearing at the bottom of the page (footnote) or the end of the document (endnote)
An indication in the prose of a relevant bibliographic source. This is often rendered as a superscript1 or a parenthetical “(Reagle 2014)”.
A reference identifier, such as “Kress2011bsn”.
Specifies a location in a source, such as a page number, which can be rendered as “(Reagle 2010, p. 5).” See Help:References and page numbers for how to use page numbers across Wikipedia reference systems.
A collection of references formatted and structured according to some style.
Conventions for structuring and formatting bibliographic references, such as Harvard parenthetical or Chicago notes.