This article is about the online encyclopedia. For Wikipedia’s home page, see Main Page. For the primary English-language Wikipedia, see English Wikipedia. For other uses, see Wikipedia (disambiguation).
Wikipedia[note 3] is a multilingual free online encyclopedia written and maintained by a community of volunteers, known as Wikipedians, through open collaboration and using a wiki-based editing system called MediaWiki. Wikipedia is the largest and most-read reference work in history. It is consistently one of the 10 most popular websites ranked by Similarweb and formerly Alexa; as of 2023, Wikipedia was ranked the 5th most popular site in the world. It is hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation, an American non-profit organization funded mainly through donations.
Wikipedia was launched by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger on January 15, 2001. Sanger coined its name as a blend of wiki and encyclopedia. Wales was influenced by the “spontaneous order” ideas associated with Friedrich Hayek and the Austrian School of economics after being exposed to these ideas by the libertarian economist Mark Thornton. Initially available only in English, versions in other languages were quickly developed. Its combined editions comprise more than 60 million articles, attracting around 2 billion unique device visits per month and more than 15 million edits per month (about 5.7 edits per second on average) as of January 2023. In 2006, Time magazine stated that the policy of allowing anyone to edit had made Wikipedia the “biggest (and perhaps best) encyclopedia in the world”.
Wikipedia has been praised for its enablement of the democratization of knowledge, extent of coverage, unique structure, culture, and reduced degree of commercial bias. It has been criticized for exhibiting systemic bias, particularly gender bias against women and ideological bias. While the reliability of Wikipedia was frequently criticized in the 2000s, it has improved over time, receiving greater praise in the late 2010s and early 2020s. The website’s coverage of controversial topics such as American politics and major events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has received substantial media attention. It has been censored by world governments, ranging from specific pages to the entire site. On 3 April 2018, Facebook and YouTube announced that they would help users detect fake news by suggesting fact-checking links to related Wikipedia articles. Articles on breaking news are often accessed as a source of frequently updated information about those events.
Various collaborative online encyclopedias were attempted before the start of Wikipedia, but with limited success. Wikipedia began as a complementary project for Nupedia, a free online English-language encyclopedia project whose articles were written by experts and reviewed under a formal process. It was founded on March 9, 2000, under the ownership of Bomis, a web portal company. Its main figures were Bomis CEO Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, editor-in-chief for Nupedia and later Wikipedia. Nupedia was initially licensed under its own Nupedia Open Content License, but before Wikipedia was founded, Nupedia switched to the GNU Free Documentation License at the urging of Richard Stallman. Wales is credited with defining the goal of making a publicly editable encyclopedia, while Sanger is credited with the strategy of using a wiki to reach that goal. On January 10, 2001, Sanger proposed on the Nupedia mailing list to create a wiki as a “feeder” project for Nupedia.
Launch And Growth:
The domains wikipedia.com (later redirecting to wikipedia.org) and wikipedia.org were registered on January 12, 2001, and January 13, 2001, respectively, and Wikipedia was launched on January 15, 2001 as a single English-language edition at www.wikipedia.com, and announced by Sanger on the Nupedia mailing list. The name originated from a blend of the words wiki and encyclopedia. Its integral policy of “neutral point-of-view” was codified in its first few months. Otherwise, there were initially relatively few rules, and it operated independently of Nupedia. Bomis originally intended it as a business for profit.
Wikipedia gained early contributors from Nupedia, Slashdot postings, and web search engine indexing. Language editions were created beginning in March 2001, with a total of 161 in use by the end of 2004. Nupedia and Wikipedia coexisted until the former’s servers were taken down permanently in 2003, and its text was incorporated into Wikipedia. The English Wikipedia passed the mark of two million articles on September 9, 2007, making it the largest encyclopedia ever assembled, surpassing the Yongle Encyclopedia made during the Ming dynasty in 1408, which had held the record for almost 600 years.
Citing fears of commercial advertising and lack of control, users of the Spanish Wikipedia forked from Wikipedia to create Enciclopedia Libre in February 2002. Wales then announced that Wikipedia would not display advertisements, and changed Wikipedia’s domain from wikipedia.com to wikipedia.org.
Though the English Wikipedia reached three million articles in August 2009, the growth of the edition, in terms of the numbers of new articles and of editors, appears to have peaked around early 2007. Around 1,800 articles were added daily to the encyclopedia in 2006; by 2013 that average was roughly 800. A team at the Palo Alto Research Center attributed this slowing of growth to the project’s increasing exclusivity and resistance to change. Others suggest that the growth is flattening naturally because articles that could be called “low-hanging fruit”—topics that clearly merit an article—have already been created and built up extensively.
In November 2009, a researcher at the Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid, Spain found that the English Wikipedia had lost 49,000 editors during the first three months of 2009; in comparison, it lost only 4,900 editors during the same period in 2008. The Wall Street Journal cited the array of rules applied to editing and disputes related to such content among the reasons for this trend. Wales disputed these claims in 2009, denying the decline and questioning the study’s methodology. Two years later, in 2011, he acknowledged a slight decline, noting a decrease from “a little more than 36,000 writers” in June 2010 to 35,800 in June 2011. In the same interview, he also claimed the number of editors was “stable and sustainable”. A 2013 MIT Technology Review article, “The Decline of Wikipedia”, questioned this claim, revealing that since 2007, Wikipedia had lost a third of its volunteer editors, and that those remaining had focused increasingly on minutiae. In July 2012, The Atlantic reported that the number of administrators was also in decline. In the November 25, 2013, issue of New York magazine, Katherine Ward stated, “Wikipedia, the sixth-most-used website, is facing an internal crisis.”
The number of active English Wikipedia editors has since remained steady after a long period of decline.
In January 2007, Wikipedia first became one of the ten most popular websites in the United States, according to Comscore Networks. With 42.9 million unique visitors, it was ranked #9, surpassing The New York Times (#10) and Apple (#11). This marked a significant increase over January 2006, when Wikipedia ranked 33rd, with around 18.3 million unique visitors. In 2014, it received eight billion page views every month. On February 9, 2014, The New York Times reported that Wikipedia had 18 billion page views and nearly 500 million unique visitors a month, “according to the ratings firm comScore”. As of March 2023, it ranked 6th in popularity, according to Similarweb. Loveland and Reagle argue that, in process, Wikipedia follows a long tradition of historical encyclopedias that have accumulated improvements piecemeal through “stigmergic accumulation”.
On January 18, 2012, the English Wikipedia participated in a series of coordinated protests against two proposed laws in the United States Congress—the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA)—by blacking out its pages for 24 hours. More than 162 million people viewed the blackout explanation page that temporarily replaced its content.
On January 20, 2014, Subodh Varma reporting for The Economic Times indicated that not only had Wikipedia’s growth stalled, it “had lost nearly ten percent of its page views last year. There was a decline of about two billion between December 2012 and December 2013. Its most popular versions are leading the slide: page-views of the English Wikipedia declined by twelve percent, those of German version slid by 17 percent and the Japanese version lost nine percent.” Varma added, “While Wikipedia’s managers think that this could be due to errors in counting, other experts feel that Google’s Knowledge Graphs project launched last year may be gobbling up Wikipedia users.” When contacted on this matter, Clay Shirky, associate professor at New York University and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society said that he suspected much of the page-view decline was due to Knowledge Graphs, stating, “If you can get your question answered from the search page, you don’t need to click [any further].” By the end of December 2016, Wikipedia was ranked the fifth most popular website globally.
In January 2013, 274301 Wikipedia, an asteroid, was named after Wikipedia; in October 2014, Wikipedia was honored with the Wikipedia Monument; and, in July 2015, 106 of the 7,473 700-page volumes of Wikipedia became available as Print Wikipedia. In April 2019, an Israeli lunar lander, Beresheet, crash landed on the surface of the Moon carrying a copy of nearly all of the English Wikipedia engraved on thin nickel plates; experts say the plates likely survived the crash. In June 2019, scientists reported that all 16 GB of article text from the English Wikipedia had been encoded into synthetic DNA.
As of January 2023, 55,791 English Wikipedia articles have been cited 92,300 times in scholarly journals, from which cloud computing was the most cited page.
On January 18, 2023, Wikipedia debuted a new website redesign, called “Vector 2022”. It featured a redesigned menu bar, moving the table of contents to the left as a sidebar, and numerous changes in the locations of buttons like the language selection tool. The update initially received backlash, most notably when editors of the Swahili Wikipedia unanimously voted to revert the changes.
Unlike traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia follows the procrastination principle regarding the security of its content, meaning that it waits until a problem arises to fix it.
Due to Wikipedia’s increasing popularity, some editions, including the English version, have introduced editing restrictions for certain cases. For instance, on the English Wikipedia and some other language editions, only registered users may create a new article. On the English Wikipedia, among others, particularly controversial, sensitive, or vandalism-prone pages have been protected to varying degrees. A frequently vandalized article can be “semi-protected” or “extended confirmed protected”, meaning that only “autoconfirmed” or “extended confirmed” editors can modify it. A particularly contentious article may be locked so that only administrators can make changes. A 2021 article in the Columbia Journalism Review identified Wikipedia’s page-protection policies as “perhaps the most important” means at its disposal to “regulate its market of ideas”.
In certain cases, all editors are allowed to submit modifications, but review is required for some editors, depending on certain conditions. For example, the German Wikipedia maintains “stable versions” of articles which have passed certain reviews. Following protracted trials and community discussion, the English Wikipedia introduced the “pending changes” system in December 2012. Under this system, new and unregistered users’ edits to certain controversial or vandalism-prone articles are reviewed by established users before they are published.
Review of changes:
Although changes are not systematically reviewed, the software that powers Wikipedia provides tools allowing anyone to review changes made by others. Each article’s History page links to each revision.[note 4] On most articles, anyone can undo others’ changes by clicking a link on the article’s History page. Anyone can view the latest changes to articles, and anyone registered may maintain a “watchlist” of articles that interest them so they can be notified of changes. “New pages patrol” is a process where newly created articles are checked for obvious problems.
In 2003, economics PhD student Andrea Ciffolilli argued that the low transaction costs of participating in a wiki created a catalyst for collaborative development, and that features such as allowing easy access to past versions of a page favored “creative construction” over “creative destruction”.
Any change or edit that manipulates content in a way that deliberately compromises Wikipedia’s integrity is considered vandalism. The most common and obvious types of vandalism include additions of obscenities and crude humor; it can also include advertising and other types of spam. Sometimes editors commit vandalism by removing content or entirely blanking a given page. Less common types of vandalism, such as the deliberate addition of plausible but false information, can be more difficult to detect. Vandals can introduce irrelevant formatting, modify page semantics such as the page’s title or categorization, manipulate the article’s underlying code, or use images disruptively.
Obvious vandalism is generally easy to remove from Wikipedia articles; the median time to detect and fix it is a few minutes. However, some vandalism takes much longer to detect and repair.
In the Seigenthaler biography incident, an anonymous editor introduced false information into the biography of American political figure John Seigenthaler in May 2005, falsely presenting him as a suspect in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It remained uncorrected for four months. Seigenthaler, the founding editorial director of USA Today and founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, called Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and asked whether he had any way of knowing who contributed the misinformation. Wales said he did not, although the perpetrator was eventually traced. After the incident, Seigenthaler described Wikipedia as “a flawed and irresponsible research tool”. The incident led to policy changes at Wikipedia for tightening up the verifiability of biographical articles of living people.
In 2010, Daniel Tosh encouraged viewers of his show, Tosh.0, to visit the show’s Wikipedia article and edit it at will. On a later episode, he commented on the edits to the article, most of them offensive, which had been made by the audience and had prompted the article to be locked from editing.
Wikipedians often have disputes regarding content, which may result in repeated competing changes to an article, known as “edit warring”. It is widely seen as a resource-consuming scenario where no useful knowledge is added, and criticized as creating a competitive and conflict-based editing culture associated with traditional masculine gender roles.
Policies and laws:
The editorial principles of the Wikipedia community are embodied in the “Five pillars” and in numerous policies and guidelines intended to appropriately shape content. The rules developed by the community are stored in wiki form, and Wikipedia editors write and revise the website’s policies and guidelines. Editors can enforce the rules by deleting or modifying non-compliant material. Originally, rules on the non-English editions of Wikipedia were based on a translation of the rules for the English Wikipedia. They have since diverged to some extent.
Content policies and guidelines:
According to the rules on the English Wikipedia community, each entry in Wikipedia must be about a topic that is encyclopedic and is not a dictionary entry or dictionary-style. A topic should also meet Wikipedia’s standards of “notability”, which generally means that the topic must have been covered in mainstream media or major academic journal sources that are independent of the article’s subject. Further, Wikipedia intends to convey only knowledge that is already established and recognized. It must not present original research. A claim that is likely to be challenged requires a reference to a reliable source, as do all quotations. Among Wikipedia editors, this is often phrased as “verifiability, not truth” to express the idea that the readers, not the encyclopedia, are ultimately responsible for checking the truthfulness of the articles and making their own interpretations. This can at times lead to the removal of information that, though valid, is not properly sourced. Finally, Wikipedia must not take sides.
Wikipedia’s initial anarchy integrated democratic and hierarchical elements over time. An article is not considered to be owned by its creator or any other editor, nor by the subject of the article.
Editors in good standing in the community can request extra user rights, granting them the technical ability to perform certain special actions. In particular, editors can choose to run for “adminship”, which includes the ability to delete pages or prevent them from being changed in cases of severe vandalism or editorial disputes. Administrators are not supposed to enjoy any special privilege in decision-making; instead, their powers are mostly limited to making edits that have project-wide effects and thus are disallowed to ordinary editors, and to implement restrictions intended to prevent disruptive editors from making unproductive edits.
By 2012, fewer editors were becoming administrators compared to Wikipedia’s earlier years, in part because the process of vetting potential administrators had become more rigorous. In 2022, there was a particularly contentious request for adminship over the candidate’s anti-Trump views; ultimately, they were granted adminship.
Over time, Wikipedia has developed a semiformal dispute resolution process. To determine community consensus, editors can raise issues at appropriate community forums, seek outside input through third opinion requests, or initiate a more general community discussion known as a “request for comment“.
Wikipedia encourages local resolutions of conflicts, which Jemielniak argues is quite unique in organization studies, though there has been some recent interest in consensus building in the field. Joseph Reagle and Sue Gardner argue that the approaches to consensus building are similar to those used by Quakers.: 62 A difference from Quaker meetings is the absence of a facilitator in the presence of disagreement, a role played by the clerk in Quaker meetings.: 83
The Arbitration Committee presides over the ultimate dispute resolution process. Although disputes usually arise from a disagreement between two opposing views on how an article should read, the Arbitration Committee explicitly refuses to directly rule on the specific view that should be adopted. Statistical analyses suggest that the committee ignores the content of disputes and rather focuses on the way disputes are conducted, functioning not so much to resolve disputes and make peace between conflicting editors, but to weed out problematic editors while allowing potentially productive editors back in to participate. Therefore, the committee does not dictate the content of articles, although it sometimes condemns content changes when it deems the new content violates Wikipedia policies (for example, if the new content is considered biased).[note 5] Commonly used solutions include cautions and probations (used in 63% of cases) and banning editors from articles (43%), subject matters (23%), or Wikipedia (16%). Complete bans from Wikipedia are generally limited to instances of impersonation and anti-social behavior. When conduct is not impersonation or anti-social, but rather edit warring and other violations of editing policies, solutions tend to be limited to warnings.
Each article and each user of Wikipedia has an associated and dedicated “talk” page. These form the primary communication channel for editors to discuss, coordinate and debate.
Wikipedians and British Museum curators collaborate on the article Hoxne Hoard in June 2010
Wikipedia’s community has been described as cultlike, although not always with entirely negative connotations. Its preference for cohesiveness, even if it requires compromise that includes disregard of credentials, has been referred to as “anti-elitism”.
Wikipedia does not require that its editors and contributors provide identification. As Wikipedia grew, “Who writes Wikipedia?” became one of the questions frequently asked there. Jimmy Wales once argued that only “a community … a dedicated group of a few hundred volunteers” makes the bulk of contributions to Wikipedia and that the project is therefore “much like any traditional organization”. In 2008, a Slate magazine article reported that: “According to researchers in Palo Alto, one percent of Wikipedia users are responsible for about half of the site’s edits.” This method of evaluating contributions was later disputed by Aaron Swartz, who noted that several articles he sampled had large portions of their content (measured by number of characters) contributed by users with low edit counts.
The English Wikipedia has 6,639,358 articles, 45,318,795 registered editors, and 129,408 active editors. An editor is considered active if they have made one or more edits in the past 30 days.
Editors who fail to comply with Wikipedia cultural rituals, such as signing talk page comments, may implicitly signal that they are Wikipedia outsiders, increasing the odds that Wikipedia insiders may target or discount their contributions. Becoming a Wikipedia insider involves non-trivial costs: the contributor is expected to learn Wikipedia-specific technological codes, submit to a sometimes convoluted dispute resolution process, and learn a “baffling culture rich with in-jokes and insider references”. Editors who do not log in are in some sense “second-class citizens” on Wikipedia, as “participants are accredited by members of the wiki community, who have a vested interest in preserving the quality of the work product, on the basis of their ongoing participation”, but the contribution histories of anonymous unregistered editors recognized only by their IP addresses cannot be attributed to a particular editor with certainty.
A 2007 study by researchers from Dartmouth College found that “anonymous and infrequent contributors to Wikipedia … are as reliable a source of knowledge as those contributors who register with the site”. Jimmy Wales stated in 2009 that “[I]t turns out over 50% of all the edits are done by just 0.7% of the users … 524 people … And in fact, the most active 2%, which is 1400 people, have done 73.4% of all the edits.” However, Business Insider editor and journalist Henry Blodget showed in 2009 that in a random sample of articles, most Wikipedia content (measured by the amount of contributed text that survives to the latest sampled edit) is created by “outsiders”, while most editing and formatting is done by “insiders”.
A 2008 study found that Wikipedians were less agreeable, open, and conscientious than others, although a later commentary pointed out serious flaws, including that the data showed higher openness and that the differences with the control group and the samples were small. According to a 2009 study, there is “evidence of growing resistance from the Wikipedia community to new content“.
Several studies have shown that most Wikipedia contributors are male. Notably, the results of a Wikimedia Foundation survey in 2008 showed that only 13 percent of Wikipedia editors were female. Because of this, universities throughout the United States tried to encourage women to become Wikipedia contributors. Similarly, many of these universities, including Yale and Brown, gave college credit to students who create or edit an article relating to women in science or technology. Andrew Lih, a professor and scientist, said that the reason he thought the number of male contributors outnumbered the number of females so greatly was because identifying as a woman may expose oneself to “ugly, intimidating behavior”. Data has shown that Africans are underrepresented among Wikipedia editors.
There are currently 332 language editions of Wikipedia (also called language versions, or simply Wikipedias). As of April 2023, the six largest, in order of article count, are the English, Cebuano, German, Swedish, French, and Dutch Wikipedias. The second and fourth-largest Wikipedias owe their position to the article-creating bot Lsjbot, which as of 2013 had created about half the articles on the Swedish Wikipedia, and most of the articles in the Cebuano and Waray Wikipedias. The latter are both languages of the Philippines.
In addition to the top six, twelve other Wikipedias have more than a million articles each (Russian, Spanish, Italian, Egyptian Arabic, Polish, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Waray, Ukrainian, Arabic and Portuguese), seven more have over 500,000 articles (Persian, Catalan, Serbian, Indonesian, Korean, Norwegian and Chechen), 44 more have over 100,000, and 82 more have over 10,000. The largest, the English Wikipedia, has over 6.6 million articles. As of January 2021, the English Wikipedia receives 48% of Wikipedia’s cumulative traffic, with the remaining split among the other languages. The top 10 editions represent approximately 85% of the total traffic.
Since Wikipedia is based on the Web and therefore worldwide, contributors to the same language edition may use different dialects or may come from different countries (as is the case for the English edition). These differences may lead to some conflicts over spelling differences (e.g. colour versus color) or points of view.
Though the various language editions are held to global policies such as “neutral point of view”, they diverge on some points of policy and practice, most notably on whether images that are not licensed freely may be used under a claim of fair use.
Jimmy Wales has described Wikipedia as “an effort to create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language”. Though each language edition functions more or less independently, some efforts are made to supervise them all. They are coordinated in part by Meta-Wiki, the Wikimedia Foundation’s wiki devoted to maintaining all its projects (Wikipedia and others). For instance, Meta-Wiki provides important statistics on all language editions of Wikipedia, and it maintains a list of articles every Wikipedia should have. The list concerns basic content by subject: biography, history, geography, society, culture, science, technology, and mathematics. It is not rare for articles strongly related to a particular language not to have counterparts in another edition. For example, articles about small towns in the United States might be available only in English, even when they meet the notability criteria of other language Wikipedia projects.
Translated articles represent only a small portion of articles in most editions, in part because those editions do not allow fully automated translation of articles. Articles available in more than one language may offer “interwiki links”, which link to the counterpart articles in other editions.
A study published by PLOS One in 2012 also estimated the share of contributions to different editions of Wikipedia from different regions of the world. It reported that the proportion of the edits made from North America was 51% for the English Wikipedia, and 25% for the simple English Wikipedia.
English Wikipedia editor numbers:
On March 1, 2014, The Economist, in an article titled “The Future of Wikipedia”, cited a trend analysis concerning data published by the Wikimedia Foundation stating that “[t]he number of editors for the English-language version has fallen by a third in seven years.” The attrition rate for active editors in English Wikipedia was cited by The Economist as substantially in contrast to statistics for Wikipedia in other languages (non-English Wikipedia). The Economist reported that the number of contributors with an average of five or more edits per month was relatively constant since 2008 for Wikipedia in other languages at approximately 42,000 editors within narrow seasonal variances of about 2,000 editors up or down. The number of active editors in English Wikipedia, by sharp comparison, was cited as peaking in 2007 at approximately 50,000 and dropping to 30,000 by the start of 2014.
In contrast, the trend analysis for Wikipedia in other languages (non-English Wikipedia) shows success in retaining active editors on a renewable and sustained basis, with their numbers remaining relatively constant at approximately 42,000. No comment was made concerning which of the differentiated edit policy standards from Wikipedia in other languages (non-English Wikipedia) would provide a possible alternative to English Wikipedia for effectively improving substantial editor attrition rates on the English-language Wikipedia.
Various Wikipedians have criticized Wikipedia’s large and growing regulation, which includes more than fifty policies and nearly 150,000 words as of 2014.
Critics have stated that Wikipedia exhibits systemic bias. In 2010, columnist and journalist Edwin Black described Wikipedia as being a mixture of “truth, half-truth, and some falsehoods”. Articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Journal of Academic Librarianship have criticized Wikipedia’s “Undue Weight” policy, concluding that Wikipedia explicitly is not designed to provide correct information about a subject, but rather focus on all the major viewpoints on the subject, give less attention to minor ones, and creates omissions that can lead to false beliefs based on incomplete information.
Journalists Oliver Kamm and Edwin Black alleged (in 2010 and 2011 respectively) that articles are dominated by the loudest and most persistent voices, usually by a group with an “ax to grind” on the topic. A 2008 article in Education Next Journal concluded that as a resource about controversial topics, Wikipedia is subject to manipulation and spin.
In 2020, Omer Benjakob and Stephen Harrison noted that “Media coverage of Wikipedia has radically shifted over the past two decades: once cast as an intellectual frivolity, it is now lauded as the ‘last bastion of shared reality’ online.”
Multiple news networks and pundits have accused Wikipedia of being ideologically biased. In February 2021, Fox News accused Wikipedia of whitewashing communism and socialism and having too much “leftist bias”. In 2022, libertarian John Stossel opined that Wikipedia, a site he financially supported at one time, appeared to have gradually taken a significant turn in bias to the political left, specifically on political topics.
Accuracy of content:
Articles for traditional encyclopedias such as Encyclopædia Britannica are written by experts, lending such encyclopedias a reputation for accuracy. However, a peer review in 2005 of forty-two scientific entries on both Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica by the science journal Nature found few differences in accuracy, and concluded that “the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.” Joseph Reagle suggested that while the study reflects “a topical strength of Wikipedia contributors” in science articles, “Wikipedia may not have fared so well using a random sampling of articles or on humanities subjects.” Others raised similar critiques. The findings by Nature were disputed by Encyclopædia Britannica, and in response, Nature gave a rebuttal of the points raised by Britannica. In addition to the point-for-point disagreement between these two parties, others have examined the sample size and selection method used in the Nature effort, and suggested a “flawed study design” (in Nature’s manual selection of articles, in part or in whole, for comparison), absence of statistical analysis (e.g., of reported confidence intervals), and a lack of study “statistical power” (i.e., owing to small sample size, 42 or 4 × 101 articles compared, vs >105 and >106 set sizes for Britannica and the English Wikipedia, respectively).
As a consequence of the open structure, Wikipedia “makes no guarantee of validity” of its content, since no one is ultimately responsible for any claims appearing in it. Concerns have been raised by PC World in 2009 regarding the lack of accountability that results from users’ anonymity, the insertion of false information, vandalism, and similar problems.
Economist Tyler Cowen wrote: “If I had to guess whether Wikipedia or the median refereed journal article on economics was more likely to be true after a not so long think I would opt for Wikipedia.” He comments that some traditional sources of non-fiction suffer from systemic biases, and novel results, in his opinion, are over-reported in journal articles as well as relevant information being omitted from news reports. However, he also cautions that errors are frequently found on Internet sites and that academics and experts must be vigilant in correcting them. Amy Bruckman has argued that, due to the number of reviewers, “the content of a popular Wikipedia page is actually the most reliable form of information ever created”. In September 2022, The Sydney Morning Herald journalist Liam Mannix noted that, “There’s no reason to expect Wikipedia to be accurate… And yet it [is].” Mannix further discussed the multiple studies that have proved Wikipedia to be generally as reliable as Encyclopedia Britannica, summarizing that, “…turning our back on such an extraordinary resource is… well, a little petty.”
Critics argue that Wikipedia’s open nature and a lack of proper sources for most of the information makes it unreliable. Some commentators suggest that Wikipedia may be reliable, but that the reliability of any given article is not clear. Editors of traditional reference works such as the Encyclopædia Britannica have questioned the project’s utility and status as an encyclopedia. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has claimed that Wikipedia has largely avoided the problem of “fake news” because the Wikipedia community regularly debates the quality of sources in articles.
Legal Research in a Nutshell (2011), cites Wikipedia as a “general source” that “can be a real boon” in “coming up to speed in the law governing a situation” and, “while not authoritative, can provide basic facts as well as leads to more in-depth resources”.
Discouragement in education:
Some university lecturers discourage students from citing any encyclopedia in academic work, preferring primary sources; some specifically prohibit Wikipedia citations. Wales stresses that encyclopedias of any type are not usually appropriate to use as citable sources, and should not be relied upon as authoritative. Wales once (2006 or earlier) said he receives about ten emails weekly from students saying they got failing grades on papers because they cited Wikipedia; he told the students they got what they deserved. “For God’s sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia”, he said.
In February 2007, an article in The Harvard Crimson newspaper reported that a few of the professors at Harvard University were including Wikipedia articles in their syllabi, although without realizing the articles might change. In June 2007, former president of the American Library Association Michael Gorman condemned Wikipedia, along with Google, stating that academics who endorse the use of Wikipedia are “the intellectual equivalent of a dietitian who recommends a steady diet of Big Macs with everything”.
Contrarily, a 2016 article in the Universal Journal of Educational Research argued that “Wikipedia can be used for serious student projects…” and that Wikipedia is a good place to learn academic writing styles. A 2020 research study published in Studies in Higher Education argued that Wikipedia could be applied in the higher education “flipped classroom”, an educational model where students learn before coming to class and apply it in classroom activities. The experimental group was instructed to learn before class and get immediate feedback before going in (the flipped classroom model), while the control group was given direct instructions in class (the conventional classroom model). The groups were then instructed to collaboratively develop Wikipedia entries, which would be graded in quality after the study. The results showed that the experimental group yielded more Wikipedia entries and received higher grades in quality. The study concluded that learning with Wikipedia in flipped classrooms was more effective than in conventional classrooms, proving that Wikipedia could be used as an educational tool in higher education.
On March 5, 2014, Julie Beck writing for The Atlantic magazine in an article titled “Doctors’ #1 Source for Healthcare Information: Wikipedia”, stated that “Fifty percent of physicians look up conditions on the (Wikipedia) site, and some are editing articles themselves to improve the quality of available information.” Beck continued to detail in this article new programs of Amin Azzam at the University of San Francisco to offer medical school courses to medical students for learning to edit and improve Wikipedia articles on health-related issues, as well as internal quality control programs within Wikipedia organized by James Heilman to improve a group of 200 health-related articles of central medical importance up to Wikipedia’s highest standard of articles using its Featured Article and Good Article peer-review evaluation process. In a May 7, 2014 follow-up article in The Atlantic titled “Can Wikipedia Ever Be a Definitive Medical Text?”, Julie Beck quotes WikiProject Medicine’s James Heilman as stating: “Just because a reference is peer-reviewed doesn’t mean it’s a high-quality reference.” Beck added that: “Wikipedia has its own peer review process before articles can be classified as ‘good’ or ‘featured’. Heilman, who has participated in that process before, says ‘less than one percent’ of Wikipedia’s medical articles have passed.”
Coverage of topics and systemic bias:
Wikipedia seeks to create a summary of all human knowledge in the form of an online encyclopedia, with each topic covered encyclopedically in one article. Since it has terabytes of disk space, it can have far more topics than can be covered by any printed encyclopedia. The exact degree and manner of coverage on Wikipedia is under constant review by its editors, and disagreements are not uncommon (see deletionism and inclusionism). Wikipedia contains materials that some people may find objectionable, offensive, or pornographic. The “Wikipedia is not censored” policy has sometimes proved controversial: in 2008, Wikipedia rejected an online petition against the inclusion of images of Muhammad in the English edition of its Muhammad article, citing this policy. The presence of politically, religiously, and pornographically sensitive materials in Wikipedia has led to the censorship of Wikipedia by national authorities in China and Pakistan, amongst other countries.
A 2008 study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Palo Alto Research Center gave a distribution of topics as well as growth (from July 2006 to January 2008) in each field:
These numbers refer only to the number of articles: it is possible for one topic to contain a large number of short articles and another to contain a small number of large ones. Through its “Wikipedia Loves Libraries” program, Wikipedia has partnered with major public libraries such as the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to expand its coverage of underrepresented subjects and articles.
A 2011 study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota indicated that male and female editors focus on different coverage topics. There was a greater concentration of females in the “people and arts” category, while males focus more on “geography and science”.
Coverage of topics and bias:
Research conducted by Mark Graham of the Oxford Internet Institute in 2009 indicated that the geographic distribution of article topics is highly uneven, Africa being the most underrepresented. Across 30 language editions of Wikipedia, historical articles and sections are generally Eurocentric and focused on recent events.
An editorial in The Guardian in 2014 claimed that more effort went into providing references for a list of female porn actors than a list of women writers. Data has also shown that Africa-related material often faces omission; a knowledge gap that a July 2018 Wikimedia conference in Cape Town sought to address.
In 2021 wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger criticised wikipedia for Leftist bias, and claimed that its days of neutrality were over. ‘The days of Wikipedia’s robust commitment to neutrality are long gone,’ Sanger said.
When multiple editors contribute to one topic or set of topics, systemic bias may arise, due to the demographic backgrounds of the editors. In 2011, Wales claimed that the unevenness of coverage is a reflection of the demography of the editors, citing for example “biographies of famous women through history and issues surrounding early childcare”. The October 22, 2013, essay by Tom Simonite in MIT’s Technology Review titled “The Decline of Wikipedia” discussed the effect of systemic bias and policy creep on the downward trend in the number of editors.
Taha Yasseri of the University of Oxford, in 2013, studied the statistical trends of systemic bias at Wikipedia introduced by editing conflicts and their resolution. His research examined the counterproductive work behavior of edit warring. Yasseri contended that simple reverts or “undo” operations were not the most significant measure of counterproductive behavior at Wikipedia and relied instead on the statistical measurement of detecting “reverting/reverted pairs” or “mutually reverting edit pairs”. Such a “mutually reverting edit pair” is defined where one editor reverts the edit of another editor who then, in sequence, returns to revert the first editor in the “mutually reverting edit pairs”. The results were tabulated for several language versions of Wikipedia. The English Wikipedia’s three largest conflict rates belonged to the articles George W. Bush, anarchism, and Muhammad. By comparison, for the German Wikipedia, the three largest conflict rates at the time of the Oxford study were for the articles covering Croatia, Scientology, and 9/11 conspiracy theories.
Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis developed a statistical model to measure systematic bias in the behavior of Wikipedia’s users regarding controversial topics. The authors focused on behavioral changes of the encyclopedia’s administrators after assuming the post, writing that systematic bias occurred after the fact.
Wikipedia has been criticized for allowing information about graphic content. Articles depicting what some critics have called objectionable content (such as feces, cadaver, human penis, vulva, and nudity) contain graphic pictures and detailed information easily available to anyone with access to the internet, including children.
The site also includes sexual content such as images and videos of masturbation and ejaculation, illustrations of zoophilia, and photos from hardcore pornographic films in its articles. It also has non-sexual photographs of nude children.
The Wikipedia article about Virgin Killer—a 1976 album from the German rock band Scorpions—features a picture of the album’s original cover, which depicts a naked prepubescent girl. The original release cover caused controversy and was replaced in some countries. In December 2008, access to the Wikipedia article Virgin Killer was blocked for four days by most Internet service providers in the United Kingdom after the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) decided the album cover was a potentially illegal indecent image and added the article’s URL to a “blacklist” it supplies to British internet service providers.
In April 2010, Sanger wrote a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, outlining his concerns that two categories of images on Wikimedia Commons contained child pornography, and were in violation of US federal obscenity law. Sanger later clarified that the images, which were related to pedophilia and one about lolicon, were not of real children, but said that they constituted “obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children”, under the PROTECT Act of 2003. That law bans photographic child pornography and cartoon images and drawings of children that are obscene under American law. Sanger also expressed concerns about access to the images on Wikipedia in schools. Wikimedia Foundation spokesman Jay Walsh strongly rejected Sanger’s accusation, saying that Wikipedia did not have “material we would deem to be illegal. If we did, we would remove it.” Following the complaint by Sanger, Wales deleted sexual images without consulting the community. After some editors who volunteered to maintain the site argued that the decision to delete had been made hastily, Wales voluntarily gave up some of the powers he had held up to that time as part of his co-founder status. He wrote in a message to the Wikimedia Foundation mailing-list that this action was “in the interest of encouraging this discussion to be about real philosophical/content issues, rather than be about me and how quickly I acted”. Critics, including Wikipediocracy, noticed that many of the pornographic images deleted from Wikipedia since 2010 have reappeared.
In January 2006, a German court ordered the German Wikipedia shut down within Germany because it stated the full name of Boris Floricic, aka “Tron”, a deceased hacker. On February 9, 2006, the injunction against Wikimedia Deutschland was overturned, with the court rejecting the notion that Tron’s right to privacy or that of his parents was being violated.
Wikipedia has a “Volunteer Response Team” that uses Znuny, a free and open-source software fork of OTRS to handle queries without having to reveal the identities of the involved parties. This is used, for example, in confirming the permission for using individual images and other media in the project.
Wikipedia was described in 2015 as harboring a battleground culture of sexism and harassment. The perceived toxic attitudes and tolerance of violent and abusive language were reasons put forth in 2013 for the gender gap in Wikipedia editorship. Edit-a-thons have been held to encourage female editors and increase the coverage of women’s topics.
In May 2018, a Wikipedia editor rejected a submitted article about Donna Strickland due to lack of coverage in the media. Five months later, Strickland won a Nobel Prize in Physics “for groundbreaking inventions in the field of laser physics”, becoming the third woman to ever receive the award. Prior to winning the award, Strickland’s only mention on Wikipedia was in the article about her collaborator and co-winner of the award Gérard Mourou. Her exclusion from Wikipedia led to accusations of sexism, but Corinne Purtill writing for Quartz argued that “it’s also a pointed lesson in the hazards of gender bias in media, and of the broader consequences of underrepresentation.” Purtill attributes the issue to the gender bias in media coverage.
A comprehensive 2008 survey, published in 2016, by Julia B. Bear of Stony Brook University’s College of Business and Benjamin Collier of Carnegie Mellon University found significant gender differences in confidence in expertise, discomfort with editing, and response to critical feedback. “Women reported less confidence in their expertise, expressed greater discomfort with editing (which typically involves conflict), and reported more negative responses to critical feedback compared to men.”
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