Wikipedia:Identifying reliable sources (history)
This is an essay.
It contains the advice or opinions of one or more Wikipedia contributors. This page is not an encyclopedia article, nor is it one of Wikipedia's policies or guidelines, as it has not been thoroughly vetted by the community. Some essays represent widespread norms; others only represent minority viewpoints.
This is a project to work towards guidelines for History-related articles equivalent to those about reliable sources for medical articles.
History articles should always comply with the major content policies: Wikipedia:Verifiability, Wikipedia:No original research, and Wikipedia:Neutral point of view. It may be helpful to consult the essay Wikipedia:Reliable source examples#History and the B-Class criteria of WikiProject History, which are also used by the Wikipedia Military History Manual of Style.
- Historical articles on Wikipedia should use scholarly works where possible.
- Where scholarly works are unavailable, the highest quality commercial or popular works should be used.
- Articles which deal with events in the past, or the scholarly process of producing history.
Articles that deal with current events, or events occurring entirely in the previous one or two years are not regarded as historical articles, since they have not been studied by historians. When historians first begin to write about an event, then it should be regarded as a historical article. Sources that were previously satisfactory, such as reports in the mainstream press, should be replaced by sources from historical scholarship.
Scholarly historians ensure their work is worthy through a disciplinary practice called historiography. This may include methodology, jargon and theory. An article on such scholarly discipline is a history article, but, may also be relevant to other scholarly fields or knowledge communities. For example, exegesis is jargon primarily used in theology but also used in historiography.
Who is a historian
Historians carry out original research, often using primary sources. Historians often have a PhD or advanced academic training in historiography, but may have an advanced degree in a related social science field or a domain specific field; other scholars and reliable sources will typically use the descriptive label historian to refer to an historian. See also "objective historian".
What is historical scholarship?
Historical scholarship is a group process by a community of experts on a specialized topic of historiography, who read and critique each other's work. Material submitted for scholarly publication is vetted by editors and outside advisers. Scholarly books typically have a page or more of acknowledgments naming the people who assisted in finding, and evaluating sources, and helping the author avoid mistakes. Editors give a high priority to ensuring that the authors have dealt with the current standard scholarly historiography on the topic. A submitted paper or manuscript that is unaware of major relevant scholarship will be sent back for revision, or rejected. Scholarly books are reviewed in the history journals, with the goal of evaluating the originality and contribution, and pointing out misinterpretations or mistakes.
The results of the scholarly process appear in numerous forms:
- Books published by academic and scholarly presses by historians, as reviewed in scholarly historical journals or as demonstrated by past works of a similar nature by the historian.
- Chapters in books published by academic and scholarly presses by or edited by historians, as reviewed in scholarly historical journals or as demonstrated by past works of a similar nature by the historian or editors
- Research articles by historians in scholarly peer-reviewed journals
- Books, book chapters and articles by social scientists and scholars in the humanities, working within their area of expertise
- Other works that are recognised as scholarship by other historians (by review or discussion), which were reviewed or edited by a scholarly press or committee. This includes unpublished papers read at scholarly conferences.
- These works could include signed articles in encyclopaedia that are aimed at a scholarly public of historians
Historical scholarship may include:
- University level textbooks that summarize the scholarly literature.
- Popular equivalents of the above published by historians who normally publish in the scholarly mode
- Publications like the above, reviewed to scholarly standards by historians, that were authored by non-historians
- Popular publications by non-historians that were reviewed favourably in explicit book reviews or review-articles by historians in scholarly peer-reviewed journals
- Publications by non-academic historians in popular modes, demonstrated as accepted by the general scholarly community by repeated reviews over time of that non-academic historian's work in scholarly peer-reviewed journals
- Publications by any of the above in politically sectarian presses, where such works have been reviewed favourably in scholarly peer-reviewed journals
- Publications that are held in several academic libraries may be scholarly. The more libraries holding the work, the greater the implication that the work is held by academic libraries for its scholarly value; rather than as an example of popular opinion or fallacious scholarship. Correspondingly, when works are held primarily or only in popular or deposit libraries this may indicate that the work has not been judged by professional librarians to be a reliable secondary source.
Historical scholarship is generally not:
- Opinion pieces by non-scholars
- Popular works that were not reviewed, especially works by journalists, or memoirs—these may be useful to supplement an article that relies upon scholarly sources
- Any primary source; however primary sources may be used in accord with the WP:Primary rules. This includes primary source collections, or the primary source sections or appendixes of otherwise scholarly texts
- Annotated editions of primary sources, with the exception of the explicit annotations
- Online editions of primary sources produced by libraries and archives.
What is "recent" scholarship in history?
Historians produce material after the fact. Recent scholarship is scholarship which displays the currently acceptable methodological practices, and that refers to other recent material. This constitutes a shifting window of "recentness" that depends on the area of historical studies, and changes in historical scholarship. The only way to judge this is by becoming aware of the higher order debates within a field of history, this can be done by reading the reviews.
The main driver for new ideas is the opening of new primary sources, such as archives. Also new historiographical models come into use. They are usually added to old models, but sometimes older models are rejected or abandoned.
- For example, scholarship before 1990 will not include post-modern or narrativist methodologies. See also historical revisionism.
- In Holocaust studies, as the Cold War ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, scholars began to gain access to the archives of former communist countries, which offered new perspectives.
Reliable sources for weighting and article structure
In many historical topics, scholarship is divided, so several scholarly positions should be relied upon. Some people masquerading as scholars actually present fringe views outside of the accepted practice, and these should not be used.
To determine scholarly opinions about a historical topic, consult the following sources in order:
- Recent scholarly books and chapters on the historiography of the topic
- "Review Articles", or historiographical essays that explicitly discuss recent scholarship in an area.
- Similarly conference papers that were peer reviewed in full before publication that are field reviews or have as their central argument the historiography
- Journal articles or peer reviewed conference papers that open with a review of the historiography.
- Earlier scholarly books and chapters on the historiography of the topic
- Single item "book reviews" written by scholars that explicitly discuss recent scholarship in an area.
- Introductions to major scholarly works on the topic or introductions to edited collections of chapters often represent a survey of the historiography
- Signed articles in scholarly encyclopaedias
Surveying these documents should provide you with an understanding of the current scholarly consensus, or the multiple scholarly consensuses held. Views lying outside of these discussions should be considered as non-scholarly opinions and weighted as such; they should generally be relegated to sections titled "Popular reactions to..." or the like. In the case that the views are fringe and that the fringe views are not a central item of historiographical debate, the fringe content should be relegated to its own article entirely, discussing the dismissal of the views as fringe views by the scholarly public.
Most academic papers have a thesis — the point of the paper; not all theses are correct, or even survive to become significant points of view. If a paper argues hotly for a thesis, and no later source accepts or mentions it, it may be best to take at most the supporting facts and leave the case being argued aside.
Reliable sources for individual claims
The most desirable source for an individual claim is the scholarly work that gives weight to discussing the claim in the first place. Works of historical scholarship usually both historicise and provide a narrative. By historicising a topic, the scholar makes the claim weighty to the discussion of the history. By narrativising a topic, the historian demonstrates their history and narrative through close reference to events and analysis. If a scholar has attached particular weight to an incident, then this section of their work is an appropriate place to locate specific claims, such as "who, when, where, what, how?" If a scholar has paid attention to a debate about causation or causal structures, then this section of the work is the appropriate place to locate specific claims about "why?" In general, however, causation is a more contested issue among historians and other scholars and particular attention should be paid to the historiography around causes.
Using multiple scholarly works and considering how all recent works of scholarship portray the encyclopaedic subject is important. Different scholars will draw attention to different features of the past, even when they agree on weight or causation. Similarly, different scholars may have different views on the causes of things.
Where scholarship draws particular attention to an incident, but individual claims of encyclopaedic interest are missing editors should consider:
- If the claim is uninteresting to scholars, is it weighty enough to include in the encyclopaedia?
- Is there a literature in trade, popular or hobbyist history that is of a high quality regarding fact checking, but of a non-scholarly quality regarding methodology or historiography, that could be used to supplement the scholarly account?
- Would a very high quality primary source, such as a newspaper article from a broadsheet newspaper of the time supplement the scholarly accounts, allowing encyclopaedic clarity?
This is perhaps the area requiring the most judgement on the part of an editor, and such sources should generally be used to add encyclopaedic colour to events or to expand on areas which scholars considered important but do not discuss at depth. Often this problem can come about because subjects that are encyclopaedically notable are not the focus of the best scholarly works on a topic. A major event may be discussed primarily for its contributions to other phenomena; a battle may be mentioned frequently in passing, but nowhere in detail.
Reliable sources for purely illustrative purposes acting as a "picture"
A fact qualifies for illustration when a major scholarly text explicitly demonstrates a point by reference to a primary source, or quotes a primary source in demonstration of a major (as weighted) fact. In these circumstances, it may be legitimate to use the primary source noted, or an equivalent primary source, to illustrate the fact. First demonstrate the fact to the reader, citing the scholarly reliable source, then provide an attributed quote from the primary source in a break-out box or blockquote. For example, "According to Scholar, Jane ran down the road with a vigor that surprised her community (Scholar, 1990). Scholar quotes Quimby, the mayor of Imaginary Town, who stated: "This was the most earnest running seen in a long time; never was such road running seen in Imaginary Town" (Quimby, as quoted in Scholar, 1990)." The primary source is not used to prove the fact, but to illustrate the proof of the fact with the unique voice of that era.
This ensures that your use of the primary source is not original research or original research by synthesis:
- The weighting is derived from a scholarly source
- The fact is derived from a scholarly source
- The primary source used is the one used from a scholarly source, or a very close analogue
- The primary source is attributed, allowing readers to understand the origin of the quote
Finally, the use of primary sources should be considered in terms of the policy regarding the use of images. There should not be too many, and they are not required.
What this essay does not mean to imply
This essay doesn't mean to imply that reliable non-scholarly sources are inappropriate or insufficient just because scholarly sources are available or potentially available. Finding and using scholarly sources is a best practice, not a requirement.
- Wikipedia:Advanced source searching
- WikiProject Military history review essay: Wikipedia's Myth of the Clean Wehrmacht
- Wikipedia:Identifying and using style guides § Topical academic style guides (essay)
- The editorial process is explained in Margaret F. Stieg, The origin and development of scholarly historical periodicals (U of Alabama Press, 1986). On how historians navigate the scholarly world, see William Palmer, Engagement with the Past: the lives and works of the World War II generation of historians (University Press of Kentucky, 2001).
- Stone, Dan (2010). Histories of the Holocaust. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 1, 16, 70. ISBN 978-0-19-956679-2.