xkcd 978 by Randall Munroe, CC BY-NC 2.5


Where Citations Come From:

Citogenesis Step #1

Through a convoluted process, a user's brain generates facts. These are typed into Wikipedia.

[Hairy sits at a desk, typing on a laptop.]

Hairy: (typing) The "scroll lock" key was was designed by future Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a college project.

Step #2

A rushed writer checks Wikipedia for a summary of their subject.

[Ponytail sits at a desk, typing on a desktop.]

Ponytail: (typing) US Energy Secretary Steven Chu, (Nobel Prizewinner and creator of the ubiquitous "scroll lock" key) testified before Congress today...

Step #3

Surprised readers check Wikipedia, see the claim, and flag it for review. A passing editor finds the piece and adds it as a citation.

[Cueball sits on a couch with a laptop in his lap, typing.]

Cueball: Google is your friend, people. (typing) <ref>{{cite web|url=

Step #4

Now that other writers have a real source, they repeat the fact.

[A flow chart, with "Wikipedia citation" in the center. The word "Wikipedia" is in black, the word "citations" is white with a red background.

[A black arrow leads from "brain" to "Wikipedia."]

[A black arrow labeled "words" leads from "Wikipedia" to "careless writers," and a red arrow labeled "citations" leads back to "Wikipedia citations."]

[A black & red arrow leads from "Wikipedia" to "cited facts" which leads to "slightly more careful writers," which leads to "more citations," which leads back to :"Wikipedia" (all black & red arrows).]

References proliferate, completing the citogenesis process.

see also - circular reporting