Wikipedia's citation mess and how to cope

Joseph Reagle


Wikipedia citations and bibliographies are a confusing mess. This just isn’t the case for newbies, but also experienced academics. This document attempts to explain some sources of confusion, and recommends a better (but uncommon) approach to using citations at Wikipedia. Most beginners suffice with the simple approach of using a formated reference in the prose. If you want a more powerful method of having a smaller citation in the prose and the bibliographic data at the end of the document (but want to skip my explanation) you can go straight to my recommended approach.

For guidance on how to cite material from Northeastern’s archives see Amanda Rust’s note.

References in prose

Simple approach

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

Read this. <ref>Kraay, Hendrik; Whigham, Thomas (2004), 
*I Die with My Country*, Dexter, Michigan: Thomson-Shore,  
ISBN 978-0-8032-2762-0</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.

<ref> isn’t really about references; it’s for endnotes

Also, an important thing to understand is that the <ref> tag is that it doesn’t indicate a reference, it indicates an endnote. Granted, the first thing people used this markup for was to write references in notes, but it is a misnomer.

Citation templates

Wikipedia does have a referencing system via templates which are indicated via a keyword appearing within double curly braces, such as {{citation}}. (Sometimes this is capitalized, sometimes not; it doesn’t matter.) 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.

Read this. <ref>{{Citation | last1 = Kraay | first1 = Hendrik 
|last2 = Whigham | first2 = Thomas | title = I Die with My Country 
| year = 2004 | publisher = Thomson-Shore | location = Dexter, Michigan 
| isbn = 978-0-8032-2762-0}}</ref>

Again, trying to edit and read Wikipedia with these things scattered amongst the prose is awful.

References at end

The sensible approach

I’m going to skip trying to explain all the weird and confusing ways people cite things at Wikipedia. Instead, I’m going to explain how a sensible markup language like LaTeX and markdown does it, and provide the Wikipedia analog.

In markdown you cite a reference by placing a unique key that identifies and links the citation to the reference. You can also include a locator, like a page number. The styling of the citation (as a note or parenthetical) and the reference (the order and formatting of the publishing data, like the placement of the year or whether the title is italicized) is then done automatically according to style you set in the document’s configuration. The reference data can be kept in an external file, or included at the end of a document.

Note that you can have two citations, each with a different page number, to a single reference, something most Wikipedia citations don’t do well.

Read this [@KraayWhigham2004, p. 45] and 
this [@KraayWhigham2004, p. 76].

## References ##


-id: KraayWhigham2004
  type: book
  title: I Die with My Country
  - family: Kraay
    given:  Hendrik
  - family: Whigham
    given:  Thomas
  publisher: Thomson-Shore
  publisher-place: Dexter, Michigan
    year: 2004
  ISBN: 978-0-8032-2762-0


Better Wikipedia practice

Better bibliographic practice at Wikipedia can be found in the Uruguayan War featured article. It uses the {{sfn}} template which permits you to have different citations—each with a different page number. However, I still have concerns with it.

This {{sfn|Kraay|Whigham|2004|p=120}} and that 


* {{cite book | last1 = Kraay | first1 = Hendrik 
| last2 = Whigham | first2 = Thomas
| title = I Die with My Country | year = 2004 
| publisher = Thomson-Shore | location = Dexter, Michigan 
| isbn = 978-0-8032-2762-0 | ref = harv }}

My concerns with this example include:

To emulate the sensible approach approach above, we do the following. Basically, what we want to do is to use the same key in the citation (via sfn) as in the reference (via sfnref).

Read this {{sfn|KraayWhigham2004|loc=p. 45}} and 
{{sfn|KraayWhigham2004|loc=p. 76}}



* {{citation 
| ref = {{sfnref|KraayWhigham2004}}
| last1 = Kraay | first1 = Hendrik 
| last2 = Whigham | first2 = Thomas
| title = I Die with My Country
| year = 2004 
| publisher = Thomson-Shore 
| location = Dexter, Michigan 
| isbn = 978-0-8032-2762-0 

I can create snippets or copy and paste the following into my pages easily.

{{sfn||loc=p. }}

* {{citation 
| ref = {{sfnref|}}
| last1 =  | first1 = 
| last2 =  | first2 = 
| title =
| year = 
| publisher = 
| location = 
| isbn =


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 “Reagle2014”.
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.