Are encyclopedias (e.g. the Encyclopedia Britannica, the World Book Encyclopedia) a good source? Why or why not?

I have read this sentence from here:

References should have credibility in the domain (i.e. no encyclopedia, no source which may be biased, etc.) and should preferably be peer-reviewed literature.

I have also read this sentence from here...

...according to the encyclopedia britannica Ibn Fadi did not come to Cairo until 12 years after Musa Mansa...

...and have also encountered the Encyclopedia Britannica as a reference here.

Of course, just because some answers have used encyclopedias as references doesn't make it good practice. Thus, I would like to learn more. Additionally, the first quote makes it seem like encyclopedias are not credible. If this is the case, why?

1 Answer 1


Encyclopedias are tertiary sources. Tertiary sources attempt to make a summary of the knowledge contained within secondary sources. They're very useful to get a ground floor on a topic before building up your own argument. They aren't very useful to put forth as the argument itself, unless the argument happens to be about a common knowledge issue. For this site, most answers cannot be adequately answered with a tertiary source like an encyclopedia.

Secondary sources are very appropriate for this site. They are things like expert opinion and industry consensus. A quality secondary source is from an expert on the topic and he draws on primary sources to make his argument.

Primary sources are also appropriate for this site, but only if they are followed with an argument that puts them into some sort of synthesized understanding. They are the point at which the information or events are first discovered or experienced. Things like scientific studies and witness testimony are primary sources. Those are great, but without an expansion on their understanding an answer is lacking. A good answer that depends on primary sources effectively becomes its own secondary source.

  • So your reasoning is that encyclopedias are not a good source because they are not detailed enough? Commented Apr 6, 2019 at 6:30
  • 1
    @Barry No, because they are too general for most questions.
    – user11643
    Commented Apr 6, 2019 at 6:39
  • Would you recommend I accept the answer? Commented Apr 6, 2019 at 6:41
  • 1
    Or would you recommend I wait and see the viewpoints of other members of the community? Commented Apr 6, 2019 at 7:16
  • I disagree here. A good encyclopedia is a secondary source. Commented Apr 16, 2019 at 16:02
  • @DJClayworth I'd say the only time an encyclopedia is more like a secondary source is when it's on a topic that's very well settled. But even then, it just regurgitates actual secondary sources. And if it's a very well settled topic it shouldn't be making a question on this site, so with regards to using encyclopedias as sources on this site my original assessment stands: very rarely is an encyclopedia an appropriate source.
    – user11643
    Commented Apr 16, 2019 at 20:31

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