Wikipedia talk:Identifying and using tertiary sources

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Initial Village pump discussion[edit]

See Wikipedia:Village pump (policy)#Wikipedia:Use of tertiary sources for some early discussion of this essay.  — SMcCandlish ¢ ≽ʌⱷ҅ʌ≼  15:46, 28 May 2015 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Interpreting NOR differently[edit]

Currently, the essay states:

  • The distinction between tertiary and secondary sources is important, because WP:No original research policy states: "Articles may make an analytic or evaluative claim only if that has been published by a reliable secondary source." Thus, such claims cannot be cited to tertiary or primary sources.

I interpret the quoted line from WP:NOR a bit differently, and don't think it intends quite the restriction that is stated in the sentence I put in bold (for emphasis). For one thing, we need to remember that many statements of analysis or evaluation contained in reliable tertiary sources will essentially be summaries of statements of analysis or evaluation published by reliable secondary sources. I think that when a tertiary source is summarizing reliable published sources, then that analysis or evaluation contained in the tertiary source meets the requirement of NOR.

And in the rare cases when the analysis or evaluation isn't simply a summary of what the secondary sources say... there another thing to consider: sources rarely fit into neat little boxes... Just as a reliable secondary source may contain primary data... a reliable tertiary encyclopedia, almanac, etc. can contain Secondary level analysis or evaluation. In other words an encyclopdedia or almanac (etc) may be "mostly tertiary" and yet act as a published secondary source for certain specifics. In which case... when we cite the encyclopedia for those specifics, we are actually citing a published secondary source. Of course, we have to look at the reputation of the "mostly tertiary" source (its editors and its authors) when determining whether it should be considered a reliable secondary source for the parts of it that are secondary... but if deemed reliable, then we can cite the analysis or evaluation as a secondary source.

So, to sum up my thoughts... I think we have two situations where a "tertiary" source can be cited for analysis and evaluation per NOR... 1) where it is summarizing the analysis and evaluation of reliable secondary sources. 2) where it acts as a reliable secondary source itself. Blueboar (talk) 14:59, 28 May 2015 (UTC)Reply[reply]

@Blueboar: I have three objections to the first point, but see a clear way past them:
  1. The policy simply doesn't say anything like that. WP:NOR is unusually strident here (it's rare for policies to use emphasis like that), and unmistakeable: "only if that has been published by a reliable secondary source".
  2. With tertiary sources we usually cannot tell from what sources they're drawing their own material (thus cannot evaluate their reliability). When we determine the reliability of a secondary source we're looking at different factors than when we determine this for a tertiary one. Reliability, like notability, isn't transferrable. I can write a terrible tertiary work using impeccable secondary sources, or a fantastic tertiary work using a wide range of secondary and primary sources, many of them questionable. It's a totally different kind of judgement and process. The tertiary reliability question ultimately boils down to "are they doing a good job compiling information", which says nothing about the acceptance and validity of specific claims they've catalogued from other, secondary sources.
  3. Inclusion in tertiary sources is often either very indiscriminate (database of all species, discography of all rock albums), or extremely selective (coffee table book of baseball greats), and each editorial approach presents neutrality problems (programmatic undue weight, or explicit bias, respectively). (Secondary sources are almost always more middle-ground. A book on the causes of WWII is not going to entertain every single relevant notion ever mentioned anywhere, nor only mention the rationales that the author already agrees with; the bulk of a such a work will probably consist of examining a wide variety of non-trivial ideas.) The excessively inclusive tertiary works are great for being able to provide hard-to-find data (like the average length of of a particular nematode, or the track list on a specific release of an album) but useless for undue weight and notability analysis. The excessively exclusive tertiary sources, like coffeetable books, and abridged field guides, aren't much good for anything, except temporary "better than nothing" citations for non-controversial facts.
I think the way past this difference of opinion is this: If a tertiary source is actually engaging in analysis or evaluation, then clearly it not in fact tertiary, but secondary by definition (at least with regard to that particular material). This ties directly in with your second point. If a tertiary source isn't engaging in those things, but our article writing is, and citing that tertiary source for it, then that's original research. Acceptable analysis/evaluation is defined as coming from secondary sources. So, either way, I see no way to arrive at the conclusion that tertiary sources can source an analytic or evaluative claim.
One the second point, I agree, but the essay already covers this in the "Exceptions" section. So, taking these two points together, I'm not sure there's a true problem of conflicting interpretations. It may be that the wording just needs some clarity, and I've been working on it for a few hours. I'm sure it will need more, especially if we actually contemplate merging this with WP:Identifying and using primary and secondary sources, which I didn't even know existed (it's not used much, and under-linked, and full of errors).  — SMcCandlish ¢ ≽ʌⱷ҅ʌ≼  16:31, 28 May 2015 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Update: It's been at least partially overhauled, and is now just WP:Identifying and using primary sources.  — SMcCandlish ¢ 😼  15:35, 14 November 2018 (UTC)Reply[reply]
I get what you are saying, but still disagree. One of the purposes of a tertiary source is to summarize material published in secondary sources. The best ones actually do cite their sources... but even if they don't, if the tertiary source is at all reputable, we can assume that the material it summarizes comes from reliable secondary sources (and thus has been published by a reliable secondary source. Which means it has passed the "only" wording of NOR)... Indeed, if we refer to an analysis or evaluative claim from an encyclopedia (or other tertiary source) we are required to cite that encyclopedia (or other tertiary source) for that analysis or evaluation... per WP:SAYWHEREYOUGOTIT.
No, tertiary sources do have their place... and while they may not always be the best source possible they are almost always at least marginally acceptable sources. And if a tertiary source contains an analysis or evaluation it's definitely not Original research to repeat that analysis or evaluation here on Wikipedia. Blueboar (talk) 21:10, 28 May 2015 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@Blueboar:On the first point, we're just talking past each other. I'll try again. Re: 'an analysis or evaluative claim from an encyclopedia (or other tertiary source)' and later 'if a tertiary source contains an analysis or evaluation...' – If an otherwise tertiary source does that at all, they are, for that claim, a secondary source, by definition. It's something that secondary sourcing does and tertiary does not. It seems to me that you are in one half of the argument trying to permanently categorize as tertiary any source that is usually tertiary, even when for a particular case it's secondary; yet in another half of the discussion you say 'a "tertiary" source can be cited for analysis and evaluation per NOR [...] 2) where it acts as a reliable secondary source itself, which I've also said myself. Thus, I'm honestly not seeing where the disagreement on this point can actually be real.
On the other point, the policy emphatically says twice that such analytic claims have to come from secondary sources (I didn't notice this the first time around). The second instance is at WP:PSTS: 'All interpretive claims, analyses, or synthetic claims about primary sources must be referenced to a secondary source, and this comes immediately after mention of tertiary sources: 'Secondary or tertiary sources are needed to establish the topic's notability and to avoid novel interpretations of primary sources.' So, there is no confusion between or commingling of secondary and tertiary sources in the policy. Tertiary are good enough for helping to establish notability, but only secondary are good enough (it said so two times) for "interpretive claims, analyses, or synthetic claims". It's very rare for a WP policy to say the same thing twice, so clearly this is meant to be taken seriously. "Assumed" to be "published in" isn't the same as "referenced to" a secondary source, which is what WP:PSTS says more restrictively. But even if both lines used "published in" wording, I'm absolutely certain the interpretation that we can just assume such publication would not have been upheld, e.g. at an RfC. It's just poor wording in one spot, meanwhile it's very clear that everything in the policy is about citing sources not assuming they may exist somewhere. Your WP:SAYWHEREYOUGOTIT point takes us right back to the previous paragraph: If a usually-tertiary source actually has any "interpretive claims, analyses, or synthetic claims" that we're using, then it is a secondary source; we're not citing a tertiary source as if it were secondary, we're citing secondary source material directly, that just happens to be surrounded by tertiary material in the same publication. PS: By defining all reliable tertiary sources as those which summarize the analysis and evaluation of reliable secondary sources (you said we can "assume" this), your conditional, 'a "tertiary" source can be cited for analysis and evaluation per NOR [...] where it is summarizing the analysis and evaluation of reliable secondary sources', would automatically qualify every reliable tertiary source (i.e., the only tertiary sources acceptable on WP, since we don't allow unreliable sources). Thus, it would directly equate reliable tertiary and secondary sources, which the policy obviously does not do.  — SMcCandlish ¢ ≽ʌⱷ҅ʌ≼  01:59, 29 May 2015 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Also concerned about the jump from the NOR quote to the following bold conclusion. It seems to me this essay is addressing a certain subset of tertiary sources, not all tertiary sources. The lede sentence of this essay offers a definition of tertiary sources that is significantly more specific and qualified than the definition in policy at NOR. For example, the lede of this essay says tertiary sources are those "without significant new analysis, commentary, or synthesis," and also as those lacking in rigor of citation ("especially when it does not indicate from which sources specific facts were drawn.") I don't see the basis for these qualifications in policy. Perhaps this essay would benefit from a more considered and explicit scope and an adjustment to the title. Or maybe these additional qualifications are things most Wikipedians understand from the definition of tertiary sources in policy and so are improvements to NOR. Net net, this essay argues against using tertiary sources for analysis or evaluation. This strikes me as too broad. The policy definition of tertiary sources seems to admit tertiary sources that summarize analysis and evaluation from secondary sources, and it seems a shame to blanket exclude such. As a general observation may I say many WP articles might benefit from more good tertiary sources. Thanks. Hugh (talk) 17:46, 4 June 2015 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@HughD: Re "this essay argues against using tertiary sources for analysis or evaluation. This strikes me as too broad." – Except it's not; WP:AEIS policy (the A and E in that are analysis and evaluation) is absolutely unequivocal on this:

Policy: Wikipedia articles usually rely on material from reliable secondary sources. Articles may make an analytic, evaluative, interpretive, or synthetic claim only if that has been published by a reliable secondary source.

On the other matters, some of the text could be massaged a bit here and there; it's just been a low priority, since this essay has actually been serving its purpose quite well.  — SMcCandlish ¢ 😼  15:31, 14 November 2018 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Tertiary sources & the Encyclopædia Britannica[edit]

This essay touches on something that I've thought about ever since I wrote this book review about four and ahalf years ago: for the purposes of Wikipedia, the Encyclopædia Britannica is not a reliable source -- with a few exceptions. The bottom line is that most of the articles are created in much the same way articles in Wikipedia are created: an anonymous writer of unknown skill &/or expertise does research from primary & secondary sources on a subject, & after minimal editorial review it is published. And because an encyclopedia has a financial incentive to make as few revisions to an article as possible -- the less labor expended on a product the more money it will generate -- the article may not be revised again for the indefinite future. So one could say that where an article in Wikipedia has the possibility of improving, or at least changing, articles in the EB are more likely to ungracefully degrade -- only without any way for an unsophisticated reader to determine it has degraded.

The major exception to this untrustworthiness are signed articles -- articles identified as being written by recognized experts. Some encyclopedias are written entirely by experts, but the EB only has a few. Because these contain expert opinions on the subject, they really aren't tertiary sources; these can be considered secondary sources. Their reliability can be evaluated in a somewhat objective manner, based on the writer's reputation & when the article was written.

That's my take on using the EB as a reliable source. Not all Wikipedia articles are as reliable as their EB counterparts, but many Wikipedia articles include abundant references unlike their EB counterparts. Wikipedia articles have a more easily determined reliability -- either good or bad -- than do EB articles. So why should we cite articles whose reliability cannot be measured? -- llywrch (talk) 05:48, 4 June 2015 (UTC)Reply[reply]

@Llywrch: [Sorry, I've forgotten for years to look at this talk page.] Some of these points are probably worth shoe-horning into the essay. As for your closing matter, I think the answer is that we generally go by reputability of the publisher. After all, most secondary sources amount to monographs, basically, and it how reliable we treat the work has much to do with whether it was published by something like the Chigago or Oxford university presses or by some "coffee-table book" company that churns out a lot of dreck. As long as EB retains a high-end reputation, the community seems comfortable treating it as an RS, within limits, while not extending this courtesy or trust to low-grade encyclopedia like World Book. (I had that one as a kid, and even at age 8 or so I could tell it was crappy. As just one example, various articles on things like flags, national anthems, etc., intentionally excluded North Korea, Cuba, and other communist countries smaller than the USSR and PRC, for blatantly political reasons. It was literally indoctrinating its mostly young audience to think of these places as illegitimate and not worthy of consideration or study.)  — SMcCandlish ¢ 😼  15:22, 14 November 2018 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Categorically unreliable[edit]

Per Wikipedia talk:Reliable sources/FAQ, no published source is "categorically unreliable". One might not prefer a textbook aimed at 10 year olds for any purpose, but one would also never say that such a textbook was worse than the WP:DAILYMAIL and could not be cited for any reason whatsoever, including for claims that do not technically require citations. A Wikipedia article is not made worse by turning the unsourced sentence "Abraham Lincoln was the 16th US president" into a sourced sentence that cites a school textbook. WhatamIdoing (talk) 19:40, 15 May 2021 (UTC)Reply[reply]