Anyone living in the 21st century can tell you that Wikipedia is both the most loved and the most contentious encyclopedic knowledge base that currently exists. Wikipedia is often referenced by students, teachers, laypeople, and others who want to sound intelligent when they argue. On the other hand, Wikipedia is also often criticised as an invalid source of information due to the ease of editability of its articles. A simplistic strawman argument set up by students and teachers alike is that anyone could go on a page, click the edit button on the top of the page, delete everything, and then write something that would put the icing on the vandalism cake.
Could an anonymous user actually go to an article and, maliciously or accidentally, do this? Most likely not in today’s version of Wikipedia.
The amount of regulations Wikipedia has that keep its information top notch and its commitment to openness and public access make it one of the most invaluable tools for academics.
But what about Wikipedia’s main competitor, Encyclopaedia Britannica, which is widely considered the gold standard for information since it is supposedly peer reviewed while Wikipedia is not. For this supposed gold standard of information one would have to pay forty US dollars, but on the other hand Wikipedia is always advertised as “the free encyclopedia”.
Wikipedia is not without it problems, but the best aspect of Wikipedia is that it is able to respond quickly to such problems due to its true and tested system of self policing and openness to its readers.
Whatever challenges lie ahead for the world’s largest encyclopedia are little to no problem due to the ease of editability that many feel would be its downfall. Wikipedia’s dynamic system that relies on its users as its checks and balances serves to be one of the most interesting and useful projects that helps to involve academics in the active exchange of open source knowledge.
As with any idea, there are different ways to approach the concept of encyclopedic knowledge bases. Both Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica have the same end goal, which is to provide extensive coverage of a wide variety of topics. However, each of them have a different means to their shared end. To see where each side is coming from, one must think about how an encyclopedia is made. First off, to make an article in an encyclopedia you need an author.
Wikipedia’s authors come to them through the edit button on top of the page of each of their article, which supplies them with millions of author/contributors that constantly edit, unedit, delete, and add information in order to create a more complete, accurate, and neutral article. Britannica on the other hand proudly chooses a few academically elite people who are known to be experts in their fields to create and revise their articles (The Wall Street Journal). Okay, once authors are chosen and the articles are written by them, what about editing the articles to include new information, fill in blanks, or delete faulty data? Wikipedia, as discussed above, relies on its user base of editors to make relevant changes to their articles by clicking the edit button. These changes can happen at any time an editing user deems necessary, hence the dynamism of Wikipedia.
Britannica however is heavily dependant on writing their articles correctly the first time according to senior vice president and editor in chief of Britannica, Dale Hoiberg, quoted in an interview with the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales: “No, we don’t publish rough drafts. We want our articles to be correct before they are published.” (The Wall Street Journal). Using Encyclopaedia Britannica’s online version, one can find many articles similar to those found on Wikipedia. However, some of Britannica’s articles are very short compared to Wikipedia’s which is due to there being a larger editor base for Wikipedia to draw from.
Displayed “proudly” in the contributor’s tab is usually one primary contributor, who is usually a white man of elite class status, and a few hired editors from Britannica itself. While writing this section I compared some articles from both Britannica and Wikipedia to reaffirm this within myself. I looked at the pages for Don Quixote, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Death, Drug, and Makmende. All of these gave me similar disappointing results from Britannica and similarly fuller and easier to navigate articles from Wikipedia. What I found most interesting from this search was that the biographical article on the primary contributor of Death from Britannica, Chris Pallis, was literally one line long on the same encyclopedia that credited him.
Another astonishing observation I made was that Britannica did not have an article on Makmende, a cultural icon in Kenya. Where does an academic interested in social/cultural study go to quickly find out specific cultural information? Definitely not Britannica since “some information is more valuable than other information” (The Wall Street Journal) according to Dale Hoiberg. By putting the control of article content into the hands of very few academic elites of similar social status, Britannica ends up reading like a pretentious guidebook for those living in the late British Empire that one would buy to entertain their racist grandparents.
By putting the control of its content in the hands of its users, who come from many different backgrounds, Wikipedia is able to be a much more comprehensive encyclopedic source than any of its competitors and reads very neutrally like any academic article should. Having an inexhaustible flow of editors to help add to and edit articles is excellent for having plenty of content, but let us get back to accuracy: Are the articles on Wikipedia as accurate as they are long? A study in the relatively earlier days of Wikipedia (2005) by Nature journalist Jim Giles shows that the number of errors and omissions between similar science articles on Britannica and Wikipedia are very close (Giles, 2005).
However, once errors are pointed out on Wikipedia, they are easily edited away once there is enough evidence that they are actually erroneous. The case of John Seigenthaler Sr. says differently though. In 2005, the biographical article on Seigenthaler had dubious information edited in by an anonymous editor that tied him to the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy. This dubious information stayed on the Wikipedia article for a total of 132 days until it was finally edited out by request of Seigenthaler (Seigenthaler). Once again in this case, Wikipedia’s ability for quick and dynamic change through its policies of openness allowed it to add regulations to its editing process. The set of policies on biographies of living persons in this particular incident was added to prevent such errors in the future.
Wikipedia now even has an article about the past issue and the measures implemented to prevent it. The fact that Wikipedia is actively hunting for its own flaws, rectifying them, and writing articles about them is a sign of assurance for academics who may be questioning its usage.
Articles in Wikipedia that are often visited due to their controversial subject matter may seem like they would be an informational battleground with biased and slanted information. Featured articles that attract a lot of attention due to being on the front page of Wikipedia may similarly seem like they may be misleadingly edited by any number of editors that are On any Wikipedia page where there is a fresh controversy or heavy traffic in general there is actually a much greater accuracy.
A statistical study from the University of California Irvine found that pages that have had more editors had the reverse effect that many would assume (Javanmardi, Lopes). This shows that the regulations and basic structure of Wikipedia’s open editing system tend greatly towards its reliability. Less superficial criticisms of Wikipedia often point out the composition of contributors to the site’s articles. Jim Giles, the very same former journalist of Nature that praised Wikipedia for its open edit structure, writes about Wikipedia eight years later to talk about some of the encyclopedia’s most current and more relevant issues past the debate of accuracy. Giles’ arguments theoretically should not detract from Wikipedia in any way due to Wikipedia’s large capability to adapt and change when there is a problem.
However, the arguments do not center around traditional criticisms of the structure or functionality of Wikipedia’s website, but instead focus on what powers the site’s dynamic engine for change: its user base. As predicted, Wikipedia’s user base is mostly from richer countries that have a larger internet access per capita. What’s interesting about this is that even in countries that have large amount of internet users, such as Nigeria with 47,143,356 users, there is an extremely low amount of Wikipedia edits from that region, such as Nigeria with only 2,296 edits (Giles, 2013) (Who edits Wikipedia?).
Since there are fewer edits from the areas of the world that are typically seen as underdeveloped, there are fewer contributing editors. This leads to there being a western bias on Wikipedia since its user base of contributing users is overwhelmingly from what is typically seen as more developed western countries such as the United States, Japan, and Europe. A good example of this bias is seen in the comparison between the Wikipedia articles of two cultural memes, one from the US and one from Kenya. Makmende is a cultural meme from Kenya (11,744,181 internet users, 3,667 edits (Who edits Wikipedia?)) that some Kenyan users tried to create a page for on Wikipedia that was reverted and therefore functionally denied.
The other cultural meme, Chuck Norris facts, is popular in the US and has been a page on Wikipedia since 2006 (Giles, 2013). Makmende was only added once criticism of the western bias behind the omission of him was brought up. Similarly, there are more articles on the fictional world of Tolkien’s Middle Earth than on most real countries in Africa (Giles, 2013). So while the information on a great majority of articles is accurate, not all of them concerning non western areas and culture are completely full. Wikipedia is devoted to neutrality on articles that have been written, but the lack of articles covering certain things is due to cultural bias, which is entirely dependant on Wikipedia’s user base.
Giles’ other argument is that Wikipedia has been declining in the amount of signed up editors each year. Newcomers who would genuinely like to take part in the Wikipedia project are often deterred by the large amount of regulations to editing that have been added in order to create a more accurate encyclopedia. Along with not knowing how to start editing properly, this discourages new users from participating, which is what Wikipedia needs in order to retain its dynamism that is fueled by the number of editors it has.
These problems wouldn’t been introduced here if Wikipedia was not going to do something about them. Recognizing that other countries have a valuable pool of potential editors that would help balance out the western bias, the Wikimedia Foundation has started two programs that allows increased access to Wikipedia. The first program, Wikipedia Zero, allows mobile phone operators to partner with Wikipedia in order to provide access to Wikipedia to people in less developed countries for zero cost (Wikipedia Zero).
This program is currently in effect in 19 countries and is slated to be released in more (Wikipedia Zero, Giles, 2013). This is mainly an outreach program that will allow even the poorest demographics, who are reliant on mobile devices which Wikipedia Zero is based on, to be able to access and edit Wikipedia with what matters to them. The Wikimedia Foundation has also encouraged universities in other countries, such as Egypt and Brazil, to include editing or creating pages on Wikipedia as an assignment in academic curricula since, as I will elaborate on later, helping out in the Wikipedia project is often a very rewarding experience for its academic users. Adding to Wikipedia to curricula in foreign universities not only helps to balance out western bias, but also adds more academically invested editors who are likely to add content fitting of Wikipedia’s standards.
In order to help new users from developing countries and new users from countries that already have a solid contributing user base, Wikipedia has made it easier to gain understanding of how to be a fully contributing member of Wikipedia. The Wikimedia Foundation once again has provided the solution by implementing a new program that helps new users learn the rule, principles, and basics of Wikipedia. Teahouse offers a safe and organized space for experienced editors to give advice to newcomers who may be at a loss for what they are able to do and not do.
The Wikimedia Foundation is also making efforts in order to increase usage of Wikipedia by academics by holding lessons and workshops on college campuses. Both of these introductory measures taken by the Wikimedia Foundation will allow new users to become acquainted with the processes that make Wikipedia as great as it is today.
So with Wikipedia’s community being the sole source of its dynamism, problems, and solutions to its own problems, it must be asked why would being an active editor of Wikipedia be rewarding for academics in particular. As an academic myself, I feel that Wikipedia definitely has a place in universities as both a learning and teaching tool for teachers and students. As a student, I feel that becoming an active member on Wikipedia would better prepare myself to write sound academic articles that are well supported and neutral as it is dictated in Wikipedia articles.
Other students who have had actual assignments based on editing Wikipedia articles have said that editing Wikipedia teaches writing discipline and puts them in contact with expert editors on Wikipedia whom they were able to exchange knowledge of views with (Cohen). Professors also benefit from the resource of Wikipedia since not only is it a teaching tool, but also a tool for themselves to express their expert opinions on, which Wikipedia gladly accepts. It must be remembered that Wikipedia, like most things, is a work in progress, but more in Wikipedia’s case, a highly functional work in progress.
Many people have brought up problems with Wikipedia such as accuracy/reliability, diversity of its user base, and ease of use for new users, but being the user driven and dynamic system that it is, Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation have implemented changes that address these problems. Wikipedia is an ongoing project that ultimately helps to break down barriers that keep reliable information out of people’s hands and instead allows laypeople and academics alike to contribute and learn from the world’s largest and best free encyclopedia.