Who owns Wikipedia?

imagesWikipedia has as one of its defining characteristics, its openness. Anyone can edit it. Anyone can reverse someone else’s edits. And that process has led to the encyclopaedic resource we have today.

How Wikipedia works is still a bit of a mystery. But what appears to be the case is that a core group of volunteers have taken a disproportionately large interest in protecting the integrity of the site. I found that out with a little experiment a few years back. Basically, the volunteers protect entries from vandalism. They also ensure that certain rules are adhered to in Wikipedia such as the prohibition on original work and proper citations.

But there is a long-term issue as to how to ensure that openness leads to a diversity of contributions. Put simply, contributors to Wikipedia are hard to find and there is still plenty of work to be done.

For the past two years in my course I have required students to make one edit to a Wikipedia entry. They have done so and done a good job. The only mischief was the inevitable vandalism of my own entry. But it turned out that I was protected by a small scale. Only 40 students each year. What happens when you ask a class of 1900 to do the same?

That is what happened to my University of Toronto colleague, psychologist, Steve Joordens.

Steve Joordens urged the 1,900 students in his introductory psychology class to start adding content to relevant Wikipedia pages. The assignment was voluntary, and Joordens hoped the process would both enhance Wikipedia’s body of work on psychology while teaching students about the scientist’s responsibility to share knowledge.

So far so good. This seems like a nobel effort to engage students. As it turns out, not everyone agreed:

But Joordens’s plan backfired when the relatively small contingent of volunteer editors that curate the website’s content began sounding alarm bells. They raised concerns about the sheer number of contributions pouring in from people who were not necessarily well-versed in the topic or adept at citing their research.

Discussions in the Wikipedia community became very heated with allegations that articles were being updated with erroneous or plagiarized information. Some community members called for widespread bans on university IP addresses and decried the professor’s assignment as a needless burden on the community.

Joordens issued a statement defending his students, saying only 33 of the 910 articles edited were tagged for potential problems.

As it turned out, Joordens had not understood that there was a core group who ‘guarded’ Wikipedia. There was much friction that followed.

In reading this account, it is hard to be anything but disappointed with the reaction of those who are dedicated to protecting Wikipedia. To be sure, it may have been overwhelming. But it was overwhelming in a good way: people were become engaged and the pool of contributors was expanding. Moreover, the appropriate response would have been to take the educational challenge seriously and reverted edits with politeness; the sort of politeness I encountered a few years ago and that I appreciated. This was, as they say, a “teachable moment.”

Instead, the reputation of Wikipedia has been tarnished. A group of students who were themselves volunteering have been discouraged and now that story is spreading.

Of course, I have to wonder whether the bad outcome will be students becoming cynical and retreating from contributing. A better outcome may be that they organise themselves to continue to contribute in large numbers and to force the issue of who owns Wikipedia. For, at the moment, it appears to be owned — a commons becoming fenced in — and that somehow seems like the wrong direction to be heading.

10 Replies to “Who owns Wikipedia?”

  1. “Discussions in the Wikipedia community became very heated with allegations that articles were being updated with erroneous or plagiarized information.”

    Unless you can show that the student additions were neither plagiarisms nor incorrect, based on my past usage of Wikipedia, I would tend to believe the Wikipedia’s allegations about the student entries. Remember, the underlying students’ motivations were not to improve or start a Wikipedia entry. Their motivation was to comply with a request by their professor and possibly improve their standing with the professor. The professor was not monitoring the entries for correctness or plagiarism, so any student entry satisfied the professor’s request and allowed the student to feel like a Wikipedia contributor and tell the teacher he/she contributed.

    Millions of users rely on Wikipedia entries for some part of their knowledge research. Over protection against plagiarism and of correctness at the expense of a couple of thousand students and a professor does not seem like an over response to me.

    I would put the professor’s assignment in the category of hacking and I can understand Wikipedia’s alarm.

  2. I, a professional historian, have attempted to correct errors in Wikipedia articles and every time my correction has been ignored in favor of the uninformed mysterious author who wrote the entry in the first place. As a result I would say any Wikipedia entry is suspect as to its veracity and should be used with much caution.

  3. they ( WIKIPEDIA ) are a racist ignore folk that claims to be in the know, but knows ignorance.

  4. I too have tried several times to edit wikipedia w/factual laws and science concerning coca tea and the United states definition of decocainized,which is 182.20 of the code of federal regulation,are ;law,,,stating decocainized means =solvent free,e.s.o. essential oils and solvent free,,g.r.a.s. general recgonized as safe having no restriction to use or quantity..Everytime some idiot from germany takes it out..Its the legal definition and he and wikipedia as deleted it.They want the public to believe what ever lies or propaganda the ,”rich” countries want them to believe.Even w/actual facts and law statuet numbers they disregard the truth..paita

  5. It is not correct that anyone can edit. If you are involved in the subject at had, they say you are not neutral. This happened to a friend of mine, who was a well read Freemason. Of course one of their religious editors jumped on this like a dog on a bone, when he found that a Freemason had edited articles on Freemasonry, and said that is a no-no. That is the fact. If you are a doctor, according to them, you would have a bias writing a medical article, a lawyer writing one on law, an architect on building design, an engineer on engineering, and lastly, a member of a secular fraternity on the fraternity itself. Now, here is the question. Would you rather read an article from someone who is knowledgeable and well studied on the subject, or one from someone who knows little on the subject? Their reply will be to use paid editors, even though they say that “anyone” can freely edit. On top of this, they allow a volunteer editor of religion, to edit religious articles, and allow outside editors, with religious ties, to edit, and use literature published by their religion as factual sources.

    Now, here is the real clincher. If you point out to them, that an article is libelous, you will get banned. My friend and brother Freemason did.

    1. You Sir,,are correct,,,Wikipedia is NOT free/open or allows u to correct mistakes via editing,,,it happen’d to me,,I quoted exact statuet #’s from our united states government codes of federal regulations ,,ie,,c.f.r.,,I quoted exact definition from our f.d.a,,on their definition of decocainized,,they refused to allow any of the truth in,and they ,”claimed” it was malicious editing,,exact laws,statuet #’s c.f.r. codes,,,and thet claimed bias,,or malicious editing,,and there was some ignorant man out of Germany that literally changed the legal definition of decocainized with in 1 minute of me putting in U.S. f.d.a.’s definition,,soooo they were watching,,,,so no Wikipedia is not truth,free or open,,,It is paid by certian government agency to define issues as certain government agencies see fit,,,not truthfully,,,,paita

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