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When writing any kind of paper or homework at the university I am supposed to give references for my citations. At the same time, sources like Wikipedia are not considered good for university level. Now let's say I am writing about malware, and I want to give definition about virus. Wikipedia has a good explanation, but I obviously cannot just copy without references (right?), and to give reference to Wikipedia is considered unacceptable.

So how am I supposed to give reference to such an item? Am I supposed to change the sentence in such a way that it cannot be tracked where I took it from?

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    [...] to give reference to Wikipedia is considered unacceptable. Why?! – Enthusiastic Engineer Oct 3 '14 at 10:24
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    as for the wikipedia issue, there is a whole question about it academia.stackexchange.com/questions/19083/… – laika Oct 3 '14 at 13:57
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    If the wikipedia article offers a citation for what you want to use, go to the original source to double-check the information and then cite the original publication. – rachaelbe Oct 3 '14 at 18:51
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    If your only source for something is Wikipedia, you must cite Wikipedia. If your instructor tell that citing Wikipedia is unacceptable, what they really mean is that using Wikipedia as your only source is unacceptable. You're supposed to read and cite primary sources, which Wikipedia is not. (Neither is Encyclopedia Britannica, @Greg.) – JeffE Oct 4 '14 at 21:45
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    This seems to be an undergrad issue, which is off-topic, here. – David Richerby Oct 4 '14 at 23:46
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Standards for papers and homework is not the same as for publications. Moreover, there is nothing fundamentally right or wrong about a definition as long as you introduce it as such ! (in University words mean what you decide they mean -- within reason, that is). You can definitely write something like

In this paper I will use the definition of a virus as a '...' (1)

and refer to a footnote that says

(1) definition taken from Wikipedia article Virus, retrieved on 2014-10-04".

Of course if Wikipedia's definition is taken from a printed reference, use the latter.

If you want to be extra-cautious you can have a look at the change log and discussion of the Wikipedia article.

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    Of course if Wikipedia's definition is taken from a printed reference, use the latter. — Only after reading the printed reference yourself, of course. – JeffE Oct 4 '14 at 21:46
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Two points to remember:

1) Always give a reference for anything which is not your own! Changing the sentence in such a way that it cannot be tracked is NOT an acceptable substitute.

2) For as long as you are a student, the university sets the rules for what is considered an acceptable source.

Since your university, like many others which I am familiar, does not consider Wikipedia to be an acceptable academic resource, you should not cite Wikipedia in papers/homework. (When writing for an audience other than your professor(s), you be the judge. This question provides a nice overview of the pros and cons of citing Wikipedia.) For the example you've given, the relevant Wikipedia page has many linked references. The usual workaround is to follow those references, find one which contains the definition you need, and cite that reference rather than Wikipedia. Of course, as JeffE noted, be sure you've actually read the source you are citing!

  • That is not a "workaround"; it is precisely how it is meant to work, even if your university does not explicitly say that, and is why those references exist. If you follow a reference and it matches Wikipedia, cite that; if you cannot find a citation that matches Wikipedia, then you are just reading text by an anonymous stranger, and shouldn't cite it at all. – Jim Oldfield Oct 10 '14 at 16:07

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