By: Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries
While studying at the University of Arizona Graduate Library School in 1992, Rick Gates conducted monthly Internet Hunts as a way for people (largely students) to use the new search tools that the early internet offered – which were, at the time, very limited in depth and functionality. The screens were black with no attention to presentation or typeface to help users. Searching required an understanding of the limited search options available from Gopher, Mosaic and other early search systems.
So how could librarians get people interested in trying out this new search opportunity? In 1993, Gates proposed, on a Usenet newsgroup posting (alt.internet.services), the idea of a collaboratively created, free internet-based encyclopedia he called Interpedia. This nascent idea, which he explained as the “Internet AS Encyclopedia,” became one of the early seedlings for what became Wikipedia. With the release of NCSA’s Mosaic search engine in 1993, a better foundation for information search and retrieval was born, making it far more palatable to consider this new medium as a key reference tool.
“At present the Internet is terribly disorganized and hard to use,” a 1993 online post noted. “There is an urgent need for an overriding metaphor, some sort of unifying organizational technique. Consider what computers were like before desktops and spreadsheets and other organizational metaphors were invented. Computers used to be entirely beyond the comprehension of even well-educated people. Now many people use them quite happily, thanks to metaphors which make them comprehensible. An Internet Encyclopedia or Interpedia as suggested by Rick Gates could be just what is needed.”
For Gates, the Internet Hunts were a way for students to explore this new invention. “Grown adults, reliving their childhoods, stay up odd hours, gather in groups, exploring weird places. But this time, they’re not looking for plastic lizards or left-handed scissors – they’re scrounging for information on the Net,” an article in Wired reported in 1994. We can only imagine what Gates would think of Wikipedia on its 20th anniversary. He has retired and isn’t easily accessible – though if he reads this, it would be great to get his perspectives and thoughts on this important anniversary!
WIKI = HAWAIIAN FOR QUICK – BUT COMPREHENSIVE IS ANOTHER ISSUE
Wiki is Hawaiian for quick. And Wikipedia clearly provides fast access to huge stores of information. However, the world is big and not every viewpoint or topic is able to be “quickly” covered, even in a Internet-based system where database size is not an issue.
WikiStats offers ongoing facts and figures about the growth, depth, bredth and depth of Wikipedia across the globe: “The size of the English Wikipedia’s size can be measured in terms of the number of articles, number of words, number of pages, and the size of the database, among other ways. As of 31 December 2020, there are 6,219,103 articles in the English Wikipedia containing over 3.7 billion words (giving an average of about 600 words per article), and 52,243,744 pages. As of December 2020, the size of the current version of all articles compressed is about 18.9 GB.”
A chapter in the 2019 Handbook of the Changing World Language Map focused on the “geographies of Wikipedia across the globe” – which began with issues of the geographical reach of Wikipedia, “then moves to geographical imaginations and the representation of places, and it examines how these geopolitical representations can diverge between different linguistic versions of Wikipedia.”
A Guardian 2018 report described Wikipedia as a “male-dominated, pro-western worldview of the online encyclopedia.” As of December 2020, Wikipedia articles had been created in 316 languages, reflecting broad coverage across the globe. However, differences between the various cultures/languages are huge, each with its own content and editing practices (although individual editors can contribute to different language editions).
In November 2020, WikiStats reported that the U.S. continued to be the largest user of Wikipedia with four billion page views – followed by Japan and Germany with one billion each and the United Kingdom with 973 million page views. The rest of the world falls far behind in usage. Clearly the goal of being a truly global resource has not yet been met.
In a 2016 Information, Communication and Society article, with the provocative title of “A river by any other name: Ganga/Ganges and the postcolonial politics of knowledge on Wikipedia,“ uncovered “the contradictions within its [Wikipedia’s] desired goal of apolitical and neutral knowledge that Wikipedia is founded upon. The analysis shows that debates on Wikipedia are invariably imbued with pre-existing entrenched ideologies thus ensuring that persistence and numerical strength outweigh evidence and the merit of an argument as determining factors. This holds crucial lessons for the imaginations of a plural and globally representative web that was supposed to challenge the inequities of the offline world.”
Another 2018 Guardian article noted “research by Oxford University in 2016 [which] revealed that the vast bulk of content written about most African countries on Wikipedia was by editors in Europe and North America. Only 16% of content about sub-Saharan Africa is written by people from the region, while most entries on European countries are written in Europe.” Wikipedia itself contains an often-updated listing of “Academic studies of Wikipedia;” however, there is no category for critical evaluations or alternative perspectives in the listings.
WIKIPEDIA: CONTINUALLY EVOLVING
Compared to ‘standard’ reference publishers, the Wikipedia system leaves many with serious concerns or questions about the system. In June 2007 Encyclopædia Britannica hosted an extensive 2005 Web 2.0 Forum, and danah boyd, partner researcher at Microsoft and the founder and president of Data & Society Research Institute, made this statement about her own perspectives on the value and role of Wikipedia:
“It should be the first source of information, not the last. It should be a site for information exploration, not the definitive source of facts. This convinced me and I developed a great deal of respect for the project and its intentions….I entered the academy because I believe in knowledge production and dissemination. I am a hopeless Marxist. I want to equal the playing field; I want to help people gain access to information in the hopes that they can create knowledge that is valuable for everyone. I have lost faith in traditional organizations leading the way to mass access and am thus always on the lookout for innovative models to produce and distribute knowledge.”
In 2005, a Nature study comparing errors in Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica found that “only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.” Clearly, Wikipedia cannot be easily dismissed for its content or value today.
A February 2020 PLOS One article, titled “Situating Wikipedia as a health information resource in various contexts: A scoping review,” found that the English Wikipedia was “a prominent health information resource in various contexts for the public, patients, students, and practitioners seeking health information online. Wikipedia’s health content is accessed frequently, and its pages regularly rank highly in Google search results. While Wikipedia itself is well into its second decade, the academic discourse around Wikipedia within the context of health is still young and the academic literature is limited when attempts are made to understand Wikipedia as a health information resource.”
Noting that “Wikipedia’s health content is the most frequently visited resource for health information on the internet,” the PLOS One article also reported on a “comprehensive literature search in OVID Medline, OVID Embase, CINAHL, LISTA, Wilson’s Web, AMED, and Web of Science,” Wikipedia was found to outrank all of these standard resources. This extensive review concluded that:
“The literature positions Wikipedia as a prominent health information resource in various contexts for the public, patients, students, and practitioners seeking health information online. Wikipedia’s health content is accessed frequently, and its pages regularly rank highly in Google search results. While Wikipedia itself is well into its second decade, the academic discourse around Wikipedia within the context of health is still young and the academic literature is limited when attempts are made to understand Wikipedia as a health information resource.”
DEVELOPING THE WIKIPEDIA SYSTEM
Tom Morris, Wikipedia Administrator, describes the encyclopedia’s development system this way: “Wikipedians or editors are the volunteers who write and edit Wikipedia’s articles, unlike readers who simply read them. Anyone—including you—can become a Wikipedian by boldly making changes when they find something that can be improved.”
“Paid editing,” as described in a The Conversation article, “refers broadly to anyone who receives or expects to receive compensation for their contributions to the encyclopedia. These editors are not paid by Wikipedia or the Wikimedia Foundation. They are understood to be contributing on behalf of a third party such as an employer or client.”
“The website has previously not had an official policy on paid editing, despite a history of community opposition to editors who contribute for pay,” the article continues. “So the change in policy comes amid concerns from the Foundation about the potential damage to Wikipedia’s reputation as a free and objective source of knowledge from editors acting on behalf of a paying client or employer.
The concerns arose after the user community broke the story of its year-long investigation into large-scale editing by the consulting business Wiki-PR.”
Wikipedia’s own Wikipedia page notes that “Wikipedia is not a game and few people who are serious about editing are focused on how many ‘experience points’ they are accruing along the way. Even editors whose high edit counts are partly the result of a series of automated edits had to learn how to perform that automation. We all learn as we go, and if we are here for the right reasons, then our edit counts are only interesting commentary on our participation—not on the quality or value of it! This is not a race, it is a collaborative project, and it can always use more level-headed collaborators willing to learn how it all works.”
JOSEPH REAGLE ON THE “INCOMPLETE REVOLUTION”
Joseph Reagle is Associate Professor of Communication at Northeastern University and author of many articles on our Internet-based world. His latest book, co-edited by Jackie L. Koerner, who is a qualitative research analyst for online communities and Community Health Consultant for the Wikimedia community. Wikipedia @ 20 Stories of an Incomplete Revolution, just published by MIT Press OA, celebrates Wikipedia’s role in “what began as an experiment in collaboration became the world’s most popular reference work.” The book celebrates the early beginnings, the evolution of what has become “the most important laboratory for social scientific and computing research in history.”
Reagle explains the success of Wikipedia to ATG readers as “Conversations about tech phenomenon is usually dominated by those who exalt its potential and those who decry its pitfalls. For example, there were those who thought Wikipedia was a herald of an open and collaborative future, others likened it to the graffiti on a bathroom wall. It was neither. 20 years on, Wikipedia was and is amazing, but it did not take over the world nor rot anyone’s brains. It now stands alone among the top websites as an alternative to commercial properties that profit by way of user surveillance and advertising.”
Yes, Reagle sees the limitations and weaknesses in this very open organizational structure; however, he asks readers to take a broader view of the encyclopedia and its value. And, Reagle believes that the quality is not a major issue today. “I believe that for any article likely to appear in Britannica, Wikipedia is roughly on par or exceeds Britannica. We saw signs of this as early as 2005.” Reagle cites an article in Nature which found that both in size – the last print edition of Britannica (2013) had 40K articles – and quality, “the English Wikipedia has about 45K articles assessed as ‘Good’ or ‘better’.” Wikipedia has shown its clear value. “Of course, Wikipedia has a very long tail (millions of articles), of lesser quality articles, and it’s always subject to attacks. (Half a million of the English Wikipedia’s articles haven’t even been quality-assessed.)”
In his earlier 2012 book , Good Faith Collaboration The Culture of Wikipedia Reagle provided an in depth look into the organizational and social structure behind this great encyclopedia. As Cory Doctorow noted in his review, “Reagle offers a compelling case that Wikipedia’s most fascinating and unprecedented aspect isn’t the encyclopedia itself — rather, it’s the collaborative culture that underpins it: brawling, self-reflexive, funny, serious, and full-tilt committed to the project, even if it means setting aside personal differences. Reagle’s position as a scholar and a member of the community makes him uniquely situated to describe this culture.”
QUESTIONS ABOUT QUALITY CONTINUE
In a 2015 article in the New York Times, James Hare, president of Wikimedia D.C., the local branch of the foundation that runs Wikipedia, used Black History Month to marshall college students to fill in some of the gaps in Wikipedia’s coverage. “You’d think that, ‘Oh, Wikipedia has articles on everything,’ but for anything having to do with a marginalized community, there’s a lot of gaps,” Hare explained.
“Powerful as it is,” University of Manchester’s José Gustavo Góngora Goloubintseff has written in Nature, “Wikipedia has often been criticized on the grounds that it is unreliable and biased, particularly in hotly contested areas such as religion and politics. This seeming lack of reliability has prompted scholars from various fields to undertake research on content accuracy in Wikipedia.”
“Wikipedia is a multilingual, collaborative, user-generated encyclopaedia,” Goloubintseff continues. “As the largest source of free knowledge on the Internet, Wikipedia is at the crossroads of diverse cultural and national groups largely characterized by distinctive ideologies. Such ideologies often converge and have for the most part contributed to the encyclopaedia’s unprecedented success. Nonetheless, as several studies on Wikipedia have highlighted, the ideological stance of the authors is known to pose challenges to neutrality, often leading to ‘edit wars’ that ultimately cast doubts on Wikipedia’s credibility when presenting seemingly controversial subjects.”
Gwinyai Masukume, an independent scholar and Assistant Editor of the WikiJournal of Medicine has actively worked to engage medical personnel in the editing/creating process of Wikipedia. Gwinyai believes that the stakes are very high, asking ATG readers: “Do academics, both directly and indirectly involved with healthcare, have a moral mandate to ensure that Wikipedia has the most accurate, up-to-date and understandable information? From the perspective of a physician who is also a long-time Wikipedia editor, the ethical, moral, and power dynamics of the medical community’s interaction with Wikipedia are explored in this paper. An attempt is made to reconcile and identify the key stakeholders affected by Wikipedia’s accuracy and credibility, including medical institutions such as peer-reviewed journals, medical schools, research funders and academic reward systems. These stakeholders act as the true guardians of Primum non nocere – first to do no harm.”
The second part of this series looks at the role of academics in the development, use and critical assessment of the value of Wikipedia and the evolving role that Wikipedia is playing in education across the globe.
Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.