Why you should not cite research work on Wikipedia that is not freely available

I recommend that Wikipedia articles do not reference research papers that are not freely available, just like research papers should not cite research work that is not freely available. Anyone who cites non-open-access, non-free research bases their work and argument on materials not accessible to the vast majority of people on this planet. By doing so, authors exclude almost everyone else from verifying and critiquing their work. They thereby stop science and progress dead in their tracks.

My advice is that authors need to understand that non-open-access, non-free research articles have not been published, they have been buried behind a paywall. With the vast majority of people not having access to such paid-for materials, any such buried article is not a contribution to the progress of science and should be ignored.

I’m writing this article because of a discussion with an editor who believes I should cite not freely accessible research and base my paper on it. I’m also writing it because of a discussion about Elsevier “donating” access to its archives to selected Wikipedians from last year, which just came up again.

In the case of the Elsevier access donated to Wikipedia it is pretty simple: It should not be used. Any open access article on Elsevier can be cited anyway; thus, the donated access only serves to add references to not freely accessible research papers to Wikipedia. It is a great deal for Elsevier as Wikipedia now shuttles readers to Elsevier’s to-be-paid for papers.

In practice, following my advice is tricky. There is a lot of important research work that is not freely available and that authors may have to cite. However, we should not be content with this or give up. In many cases, with a bit of digging, one can find alternative papers with basically the same content that are freely available.

Citing only freely accessible papers is a moral imperative for anyone who would like to see science and society progress. By doing so you include those who are otherwise not included, which is basically anyone who does not work for a rich university or research lab.

If I had time, I would write a bot for Wikipedia that flags any referenced article that can only be accessed through a paywall. By flagging the reference I would recommend that authors find a freely accessible alternative to the referenced article.

PS: Here is what the EFF has to say on the topic: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2015/12/what-if-elsevier-and-researchers-quit-playing-hide-and-seek

4 thoughts on “Why you should not cite research work on Wikipedia that is not freely available

  1. Michael Jastram

    I share this sentiment. Not sure how thing are in other disciplines, but in computer science it is common to get permission by the publisher to post the paper elsewhere (homepage, university department site, etc.), as long as it is formatted differently than the Journal article (e.g. different Latex Style).

    What’s your view on this “compromise”?

        1. Dirk Riehle Post author

          I think it comes from the green open access solution (as opposed to the golden open access solution). Not sure what came first though. It is in the interest of researchers to get their papers out there and be read (and cited) rather than buried. So you like us and we all probably have been using various more or less well defined solutions. I like the ACM for its support of green publishing, and it really doesn’t hurt their digital library subscriptions either.


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