Why You Should Not Use Wikipedia As Your Primary Source

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It is no secret to anyone who has read my posts in this forum for a while that I do not like Wikipedia. I think that there’s a fundamental flaw with the whole concept and philosophy of it. While I think that it may be useful to many who need a quick lookup for something, it is unfortunate that even more are using it almost as their primary source of information. And this is scary considering that (i) the validity of the information being presented is never guaranteed and (ii) the pedagogical presentation of the material is often shoddy, making the subject even more confusing.

I often get asked to look at such-and-such Wikipedia entry, or someone is trying to convince me of something and using a Wikipedia entry as a “reference” to back up his/her argument. It is usually during such instances that I find inaccuracies, confusing statements, and something outright errors in such entries. I was doing my own search on something a few minutes ago, and I decided, out of curiosity, to see what Wikipedia has to say about “Work Function”. Now, keep in mind that this is a common terminology, especially for physics students, since the photoelectric effect is a “must-know” topic for these students. One would think that this should be a topic that a Wikipedia entry would get it right, considering how many people would look up such a thing, AND, the fact that errors and inaccuracy would, by now, be ironed out.

WRONG!

This is what I first saw on the Wikipedia page Oct. 8, and my last check today shows that it is still there.

work function wiki page

I posted the date in the screen capture as a date stamp on when this was first viewed.

The offending passage has been highlighted with a red box. Let’s look at it closely, shall we?

The description here is on what happened for an insulator (or a semiconductor, for that matter). The figure shown is the simplified band diagram for such a system (i.e. an intrinsic semiconductor, for example), and defines the various quantities such as the work function, band gap, electron affinity, etc. The problematic statement says this:

For an insulator, the Fermi level lies within the band gap, indicating an empty conduction band; in this case, the minimum energy to remove an electron is about the sum of half the band gap and the electron affinity.

The first part of that paragraph which says “…. For an insulator, the Fermi level lies within the band gap, indicating an empty conduction band …” is OK. However, the second part is very puzzling and an outright error : “… in this case, the minimum energy to remove an electron is about the sum of half the band gap and the electron affinity …”

Whoever wrote this is STILL thinking that the work function (Phi) is still the minimum energy needed to produce photoemission, as in the case of a metal. This is FALSE, and anyone who looks at the band diagram can tell. Half of the band gap plus the electron affinity is the work function Phi, but this is the energy between the vacuum level and the Fermi level. The Fermi level for insulator/semiconductor has NO STATES, and thus, no electrons to excite! After all, it resides in the band gap! So what is being excited here?

For an insulator/semiconductor, while the work function may still be defined as the energy between the Fermi level and the vacuum level, it no longer corresponds to the photoemission threshold! The photoemission threshold now is the full band gap energy PLUS the electron affinity. You need to excite, at the minimum, the electrons from the top of the valence band to the vacuum level. One can see this clearly by looking at the band diagram in the figure.

Now, you can tell me “But ZapperZ, why can’t you correct these errors, and provide a service to the community?” You will then have missed my point entirely. My problem isn’t with these errors. My problem is the WHOLE PHILOSOPHY of Wikipedia. I find that to be the fundamental flaw, that no one of any authority is being given the ability to write and edit stuff. The errors in the various entries are only the SYMPTOMS of the flawed philosophy. I could spend a lifetime correcting many of these errors (now why would I want to spend a lot of my own personal time to do that in the first place, no one has given me a good reason), and it would not change a thing about my perception of Wikipedia.

If you don’t know the topic you are looking up, and you are using Wikipedia as your PRIMARY SOURCE OF INFORMATION, I would be very scared if I were you.

94 replies
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  1. ZapperZ
    ZapperZ says:

    Can you give an example of a primary source you recommend and explain in what way it differs from Wikipedia?

    Only if you reply to my question on where I wrote that such sources must be “flawless”. This has been nothing but a one-way street, you convoluting what I said and asking me to defend it.

    Zz.

  2. atyy
    atyy says:

    Only if you reply to my question on where I wrote that such sources must be “flawless”. This has been nothing but a one-way street, you convoluting what I said and asking me to defend it.

    You used the errors as a symptom of the flawed “WHOLE PHILOSOPHY” of Wikipedia. So if there were no errors, there would be no symptoms and you would have no evidence.

  3. ZapperZ
    ZapperZ says:

    You used the errors as a symptom of the flawed “WHOLE PHILOSOPHY” of Wikipedia. So if there were no errors, there would be no symptoms and you would have no evidence.

    Then you don’t know how to read. Nowhere in the THREE points that I described as the flaw in the philosophy of Wikipedia involves a discussion about errors!

    There is no point in continuing this, because what I wrote is not what you understood. It is why you mangled what I wrote. So why would you bother to listen to anything that I have to say?

    Over and out!

    Zz.

  4. atyy
    atyy says:

    Then you don’t know how to read. Nowhere in the THREE points that I described as the flaw in the philosophy of Wikipedia involves a discussion about errors!

    There is no point in continuing this, because what I wrote is not what you understood. It is why you mangled what I wrote. So why would you bother to listen to anything that I have to say?

    Over and out!

    So your mention of errors is irrelevant to your objection to Wikipedia as a primary source? In other words, the first part of your essay is not related to the second part of your essay?

    You still have not given any example of a primary source you recommend – in the sense of sole source. So at present your objection to Wikipedia as a primary source is empty, since it is not clear that any source should be a primary source.

  5. Hornbein
    Hornbein says:

    Have you ever tried any other online encyclopedia?

    I have, to find a minimum of information and a maximum of advertising. Wikipedia was far superior.

    So…what alternative do you suggest? The Library of Congress is too far away for me.

  6. ZapperZ
    ZapperZ says:

    So your mention of errors is irrelevant to your objection to Wikipedia as a primary source? In other words, the first part of your essay is not related to the second part of your essay?

    Sorry, but you’ve just shown more evidence of your inability to comprehend what you read.

    In my “first part” of the essay, I wrote this:

    Now, you can tell me “But ZapperZ, why can’t you correct these errors, and provide a service to the community?” You will then have missed my point entirely. My problem isn’t with these errors. My problem is the WHOLE PHILOSOPHY of Wikipedia. I find that to be the fundamental flaw, that no one of any authority is being given the ability to write and edit stuff. The errors in the various entries are only the SYMPTOMS of the flawed philosophy.

    So now I bet you want me to explain what are the “flawed philosophy”, even though I’ve spent time and effort writing it all down already. The errors are one of the SYMPTOMS!

    You still have not given any example of a primary source you recommend – in the sense of sole source. So at present your objection to Wikipedia as a primary source is empty, since it is not clear that any source should be a primary source.

    At this point, I don’t care to answer this, because anyone reading this would have already known that I would consider as a more viable primary source than Wikipedia. If you consider this objection as empty, then it is fine with me, because any attempt at explaining it will be mangled as the others.

    Zz.

  7. atyy
    atyy says:

    Sorry, but you’ve just shown more evidence of your inability to comprehend what you read.

    In my “first part” of the essay, I wrote this:

    So now I bet you want me to explain what are the “flawed philosophy”, even though I’ve spent time and effort writing it all down already. The errors are one of the SYMPTOMS!

    At this point, I don’t care to answer this, because anyone reading this would have already known that I would consider as a more viable primary source than Wikipedia. If you consider this objection as empty, then it is fine with me, because any attempt at explaining it will be mangled as the others.

    Zz.

    “More viable”? So there are degrees of viability? Just as there are degrees of “only”?

  8. micromass
    micromass says:

    I don’t know what’s so controversial about ZapperZ’s opinion, it’s common sense really. Yes, I use wikipedia now and then, and I find it useful. But it is clear not to use it as a primary source for math or for physics.

    So what do I mean with this? Let’s say you wanted to know some linear algebra. Or you encountered the word vector space somewhere. What some people do, is just go to wikipedia and read the article of a vector space. I do not recommend this at all. What you will get out of this is some basic intuition of what it is about. This is good. But you won’t know much actual and deep stuff about vector spaces.
    On the other hand, what I recommend you do is pick up a good book on vector spaces such as Treil’s “Linear algebra done wrong”. There you get a structured approach to vector spaces.

    If somebody comes to me and says “I’ve read the book of Treil and done the problems” vs “I’ve read various wikipedia articles on linear algebra”, I would say that the former understands the material, why the latter does not

    I hope nobody in this thread thinks he should learn the material only by using wikipedia (which IS what some people think).

  9. ZapperZ
    ZapperZ says:

    ”More viable”? So there are degrees of viability? Just as there are degrees of “only”?

    Sticking to the subject, you accused my “two” essays at not having to do with each other. I responded by pointing out why you simply didn’t pay attention. Are you STILL under that false impression?

    And no, I have no desire to answer you anymore. I’m just doing cleaning up of the previously-created mess.

    Zz.

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