Criticism of Wikipedia
|This article is outdated. (August 2012)|
The major points of criticism of Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, are the claims that the principle of being open for editing by everyone makes Wikipedia unauthoritative and unreliable (see Reliability of Wikipedia), that it exhibits systemic bias, and that its group dynamics hinder its goals. The Seigenthaler and Essjay incidents caused criticism of Wikipedia's reliability and usefulness as a reference.
- 1 Criticism of the content
- 1.1 Accuracy of information
- 1.1.1 Lack of authority
- 1.1.2 Comparative study on scientific articles conducted by Nature
- 1.1.3 Lack of fact-checking on specialized topics
- 1.1.4 Neutral point of view and conflicts of interest
- 1.2 Quality of the presentation
- 1.3 Systemic bias in coverage
- 1.4 Sexual content
- 1.5 Exposure to vandals
- 1.6 Privacy concerns
- 1.1 Accuracy of information
- 2 Criticism of the community
- 2.1 Jimmy Wales' role
- 2.2 Selection of editors
- 2.3 Anonymity of editors
- 2.4 Editorial process
- 2.5 Social stratification
- 2.6 Excessive nature of rules
- 3 Plagiarism concerns
- 4 See also
- 5 Further reading
- 6 References
- 7 External links
Criticism of the content
Accuracy of information
Wikipedia acknowledges that it should not be used as a primary source for research. Librarian Philip Bradley stated in an October 2004 interview with The Guardian that "the main problem is the lack of authority. With printed publications, the publishers have to ensure that their data is reliable, as their livelihood depends on it. But with something like this, all that goes out the window." Robert McHenry similarly noted that readers of Wikipedia cannot know who has written the article they are reading – it may or may not have been written by an expert.
Comparative study on scientific articles conducted by Nature
In December 2005 the journal Nature conducted a single-blind study comparing the accuracy of a sample of articles from Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica. The sample included 42 articles on scientific topics, including biographies of well-known scientists. The articles were compared for accuracy by academic reviewers who remained anonymous − a customary practice for journal article reviews. Based on their review, the average Wikipedia article contained 4 errors or omissions; the average Britannica article, 3. The study concluded: "Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries".
Encyclopædia Britannica's initial concerns led to Nature releasing further documentation of its survey method. Based on this additional information, Encyclopædia Britannica denied the validity of the Nature study, stating that it was "fatally flawed" as the Britannica extracts were compilations that sometimes included articles written for the youth version. Nature acknowledged the compiled nature of some of the Britannica extracts, but denied that this invalidated the conclusions of the study. Encyclopædia Britannica also argued that while the Nature study showed that the error rate between the two encyclopedias was similar, a breakdown of the errors indicated that the mistakes in Wikipedia were more often the inclusion of incorrect facts, while the mistakes in Britannica were "errors of omission", making "Britannica far more accurate than Wikipedia, according to the figures".
Lack of fact-checking on specialized topics
Inaccurate information that is not obviously false may persist in Wikipedia for a long time before it is challenged. The most prominent cases reported by mainstream media involved biographies of living people.
The Seigenthaler incident demonstrated that the subject of a biographical article must sometimes fix blatant lies about his own life. In May 2005, an anonymous user edited the biographical article on American journalist and writer John Seigenthaler so that it contained several false and defamatory statements. The inaccurate claims went unnoticed from May until September 2005 when they were discovered by Victor S. Johnson, Jr., a friend of Seigenthaler. Wikipedia content is often mirrored at sites such as Answers.com, which means that incorrect information can be replicated alongside correct information through a number of web sources. Such information can develop a misleading authority because of its presence at such sites.
In another example, on March 2, 2007, msnbc.com reported that then-New York Senator and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had been incorrectly listed for 20 months in her Wikipedia biography as valedictorian of her class of 1969 at Wellesley College. (Hillary Rodham, the former Senator's maiden name, was not the valedictorian, though she did speak at commencement.) The article included a link to the Wikipedia edit, where the incorrect information was added on July 9, 2005. After the msnbc.com report appeared, the inaccurate information was removed within 24 hours.
Attempts to perpetrate hoaxes may not be confined to editing existing Wikipedia articles, but can also include creating new articles. In October 2005 Alan Mcilwraith, a former call center worker from Scotland, created a Wikipedia article in which he claimed to be a highly decorated war hero. The article was, however, quickly identified as a hoax by other users and deleted.
There have also been instances of users deliberately inserting false information into Wikipedia in order to test the system and demonstrate its alleged unreliability. Gene Weingarten, a journalist, ran such a test in 2007. He inserted false information into his own Wikipedia article, and it was removed 27 hours later by a Wikipedia editor. Wikipedia considers the deliberate insertion of false and misleading information to be vandalism.
Neutral point of view and conflicts of interest
Wikipedia regards the concept of neutral point of view (NPOV) as one of its non-negotiable principles. However it acknowledges that such a concept has its limitations – its policy indeed states that articles should be "as far as possible" written without bias. Mark Glaser, a journalist, also wrote that this may be an impossible ideal due to the inevitable biases of editors.
The 2005 Nature study also gave two brief examples of challenges that Wikipedian science writers purportedly faced on Wikipedia. The first concerned the addition of a section on violence to the schizophrenia article, which exhibited the view of one of the article's regular editors, neuropsychologist Vaughan Bell, that it was little more than a "rant" about the need to lock people up, and that editing it stimulated him to look up the literature on the topic.
The second dispute reported by Nature involved the climate researcher William Connolley, who was opposed by anonymous editors (Nature considered anonymous editors that did not use their real names). The topic in this second dispute was climate change; Nature reported that this dispute was far more protracted, and led to arbitration, which took three months to produce a decision. The outcome of arbitration, as reported by Nature, was a six-month parole for Connolley − during this time he was restricted to one revert per day. Connolley's opponents were reportedly banned from editing climate articles also for six months.
Exposure to political operatives and advocates
While Wikipedia policy requires articles to have a neutral point of view, it is not immune from attempts by outsiders (or insiders) with an agenda to place a spin on articles. In January 2006 it was revealed that several staffers of members of the U.S. House of Representatives had embarked on a campaign to cleanse their respective bosses' biographies on Wikipedia, as well as inserting negative remarks on political opponents. References to a campaign promise by Martin Meehan to surrender his seat in 2000 were deleted, and negative comments were inserted into the articles on U.S. Senator Bill Frist and Eric Cantor, a congressman from Virginia. Numerous other changes were made from an IP address which is assigned to the House of Representatives. In an interview, Wikipedia de facto leader Jimmy Wales remarked that the changes were "not cool." Some organizations[who?] are making efforts to correct inaccuracies.
Larry Delay and Pablo Bachelet write that from their perspective, some articles dealing with Latin American history and groups (such as the Sandinistas and Cuba) lack political neutrality and are written from a sympathetic Marxist perspective which treats socialist dictatorships favorably at the expense of alternate positions.
In 2008, the pro-Israel group Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) organized an e-mail campaign to encourage readers to correct perceived Israel-related biases and inconsistencies in Wikipedia. CAMERA argued the excerpts were unrepresentative and that it had explicitly campaigned merely "toward encouraging people to learn about and edit the online encyclopedia for accuracy". Defenders of CAMERA and the competing group, Electronic Intifada, went into mediation. Israeli diplomat David Saranga said that Wikipedia is generally fair in regard to Israel. When it was pointed out that the entry on Israel mentioned the word "occupation" nine times, whereas the entry on the Palestinian People mentioned "terror" only once, he responded, "It means only one thing: Israelis should be more active on Wikipedia. Instead of blaming it, they should go on the site much more, and try and change it."
Political commentator Haviv Rettig Gur, reviewing widespread perceptions in Israel of systemic bias in Wikipedia articles, has argued that there are deeper structural problems creating this bias: anonymous editing favors biased results, especially if the editors organize concerted campaigns of defamation as has been done in articles dealing with Arab-Israeli issues, and current Wikipedia policies, while well-meant, have proven ineffective in handling this.
On August 31, 2008, The New York Times ran an article detailing the edits made to the biography of Alaska governor Sarah Palin in the wake of her nomination as running mate of Arizona Senator John McCain. During the 24 hours before the McCain campaign announcement, 30 edits, many of them flattering details, were made to the article by Wikipedia single-purpose user identity Young Trigg. This person has later acknowledged working on the McCain campaign, and having several Wikipedia user accounts.
In November 2007, libelous accusations were made against two politicians from southwestern France, Jean-Pierre Grand and Hélène Mandroux-Colas, on their Wikipedia biographies. Jean-Pierre Grand asked the president of the French National Assembly and the Prime Minister of France to reinforce the legislation on the penal responsibility of Internet sites and of authors who peddle false informations in order to cause harm. Senator Jean Louis Masson then requested the Minister of Justice to tell him whether it would be possible to increase the criminal responsibilities of hosting providers, site operators, and authors of libelous content; the minister declined to do so, recalling the existing rules in the LCEN law.
On August 25, 2010, the Toronto Star reported that the Canadian "government is now conducting two investigations into federal employees who have taken to Wikipedia to express their opinion on federal policies and bitter political debates."
In 2010, Al Jazeera's Teymoor Nabili suggested that the article Cyrus Cylinder had been edited for political purposes by "an apparent tussle of opinions in the shadowy world of hard drives and 'independent' editors that comprise the Wikipedia industry." He suggested that after the Iranian presidential election, 2009 and the ensuing "anti-Iranian activities" a "strenuous attempt to portray the cylinder as nothing more than the propaganda tool of an aggressive invader" was visible. The edits following his analysis of the edits during 2009 and 2010, represented "a complete dismissal of the suggestion that the cylinder, or Cyrus' actions, represent concern for human rights or any kind of enlightened intent," in stark contrast to Cyrus' own reputation as documented in the Old Testament and the people of Babylon.
Commandeering or sanitizing articles
Articles of particular interest to an editor or group of editors are sometimes commandeered and sanitized. Organizations like Sony, Diebold, Nintendo, Dell, the CIA and the Church of Scientology were all shown to have sanitized pages about themselves to continually reflect a point of view that sheds a favorable light on the subject or group. Editors essentially "squat" on pages, watching for negative entries, then immediately revert them. This is especially true of pages on politicians as shown on USA Congressional staff edits to Wikipedia. There are also accusations of editors sanitizing pages to remove any negative information about persons or organizations. The page on Scientology has also been subject to being commandeered and has been put under the Wikipedia:Protection policy. These habits of commandeering, sanitizing and squatting discourage informed experts from spending the time and attention to make well-footnoted entries for fear that accurate and time-consuming work will be quickly deleted.
Editing for financial rewards
In January 2007 Rick Jelliffe claimed in a story carried by CBS and IDG News Service that Microsoft had offered him compensation in exchange for his future editorial services on Wikipedia's articles related to OOXML (Office Open Extensible Markup Language). A Microsoft spokesperson, quoted by CBS, commented that "Microsoft and the writer, Rick Jelliffe, had not determined a price and no money had changed hands – but they had agreed that the company would not be allowed to review his writing before submission". Also quoted by CBS, Jimmy Wales expressed his disapproval of Microsoft's involvement: "We were very disappointed to hear that Microsoft was taking that approach".
WikiScanner systematically exposes biased editors
In August 2007, a tool called WikiScanner developed by Virgil Griffith, a visiting researcher from the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, was released to match anonymous IP edits in the encyclopedia with an extensive database of addresses.
News stories appeared about IP addresses from various organizations such as the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Diebold, Inc. and the Australian government being used to make edits to Wikipedia articles, sometimes of an opinionated or questionable nature. Another story stated that an IP address from the BBC itself had been used to vandalize the article on George W. Bush.
The BBC quoted a Wikipedia spokesperson as praising the tool: "We really value transparency and the scanner really takes this to another level. Wikipedia Scanner may prevent an organisation or individuals from editing articles that they're really not supposed to." Not everyone hailed WikiScanner as a success for Wikipedia. Oliver Kamm, in a column for The Times, argued instead that:
The WikiScanner is thus an important development in bringing down a pernicious influence on our intellectual life. Critics of the web decry the medium as the cult of the amateur. Wikipedia is worse than that; it is the province of the covert lobby. The most constructive course is to stand on the sidelines and jeer at its pretensions.
WikiScanner only reveals conflicts of interest when the editor does not have a Wikipedia account and their IP address is used instead. Conflict of interest editing done by editors with accounts is not detected, since those edits are anonymous to everyone except certain Wikipedia admins.
Quality of the presentation
Quality of writing
Roy Rosenzweig, in a June 2006 essay that combined both praise and criticism of Wikipedia, had several criticisms of its prose and its failure to distinguish the genuinely important from the merely sensational. He said that Wikipedia is "surprisingly accurate in reporting names, dates, and events in U.S. history" (Rosenzweig's own field of study) and that most of the few factual errors that he found "were small and inconsequential" and that some of them "simply repeat widely held but inaccurate beliefs", which are also repeated in Encarta and the Britannica. However, he made one major criticism:
Good historical writing requires not just factual accuracy but also a command of the scholarly literature, persuasive analysis and interpretations, and clear and engaging prose. By those measures, American National Biography Online easily outdistances Wikipedia.
Contrasting Wikipedia's treatment of Abraham Lincoln to that of Civil War historian James McPherson in American National Biography Online, he said that both were essentially accurate and covered the major episodes in Lincoln's life, but praised "McPherson's richer contextualization… his artful use of quotations to capture Lincoln's voice … and … his ability to convey a profound message in a handful of words." By contrast, he gives an example of Wikipedia's prose that he finds "both verbose and dull." Rosenzweig made a further criticism, contrasting "the skill and confident judgment of a seasoned historian" displayed by McPherson and others to the "antiquarianism" of Wikipedia (which he compares in this respect to American Heritage magazine), and said that while Wikipedia often provides extensive references, they are not the best ones.
Rosenzweig also criticized the "waffling—encouraged by the npov policy—[which] means that it is hard to discern any overall interpretive stance in Wikipedia history." By example, he quoted the conclusion of Wikipedia's article on William Clarke Quantrill. While generally praising the article, he pointed out its "waffling" conclusion: "Some historians…remember him as an opportunistic, bloodthirsty outlaw, while others continue to view him as a daring soldier and local folk hero."
A study of cancer articles by Yaacov Lawrence of the Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University found that the entries were mostly accurate, but they were written at college reading level, as opposed to the ninth grade level seen in the Physician Data Query. He said that "Wikipedia's lack of readability may reflect its varied origins and haphazard editing." The Economist noted that the quality of writing of Wikipedia articles can be a guide to the reader: "inelegant or ranting prose usually reflects muddled thoughts and incomplete information."
The Wall Street Journal debate
In the September 12, 2006 edition of The Wall Street Journal, Jimmy Wales debated with Dale Hoiberg, editor-in-chief of Encyclopædia Britannica. Hoiberg focused on a need for expertise and control in an encyclopedia and cited Lewis Mumford that overwhelming information could "bring about a state of intellectual enervation and depletion hardly to be distinguished from massive ignorance."
Wales emphasized Wikipedia's differences, and asserted that openness and transparency lead to quality. Hoiberg claimed that he "had neither the time nor space to respond to [criticisms]" and "could corral any number of links to articles alleging errors in Wikipedia", to which Wales responded: "No problem! Wikipedia to the rescue with a fine article", and included a link to the Wikipedia article Criticism of Wikipedia.
Systemic bias in coverage
Wikipedia has been accused of systemic bias, which is to say its general nature leads, without necessarily any conscious intention, to the propagation of various prejudices. Although many articles in newspapers have concentrated on minor factual errors in Wikipedia articles, there are also concerns about large-scale, presumably unintentional effects from the increasing influence and use of Wikipedia as a research tool at all levels. In an article in the Times Higher Education magazine (London) philosopher Martin Cohen frames Wikipedia of having "become a monopoly" with "all the prejudices and ignorance of its creators", which he describes as a "youthful cab-driver's" perspective. Cohen's argument, however, finds a grave conclusion in these circumstances: "To control the reference sources that people use is to control the way people comprehend the world. Wikipedia may have a benign, even trivial face, but underneath may lie a more sinister and subtle threat to freedom of thought." That freedom is undermined by what he sees as what matters on Wikipedia, "not your sources but the 'support of the community'."
Critics also point to the tendency to cover topics in a detail disproportionate to their importance. For example, Stephen Colbert once mockingly praised Wikipedia for having a "longer entry on 'lightsabers' than it does on the 'printing press'." In an interview with The Guardian, Dale Hoiberg, the editor-in-chief of Encyclopædia Britannica, noted:
People write of things they're interested in, and so many subjects don't get covered; and news events get covered in great detail. In the past, the entry on Hurricane Frances was more than five times the length of that on Chinese art, and the entry on Coronation Street was twice as long as the article on Tony Blair.
This critical approach has been satirised "Wikigroaning", a term coined by Jon Hendren of the website Something Awful. In the game, two articles (preferably with similar names) are compared: one about an acknowledged serious or classical subject and the other about a topic popular or current. Defenders of a broad inclusion criteria have held that the encyclopedia's coverage of pop culture does not impose space constraints on the coverage of more serious subjects (see "Wiki is not paper"). As Ivor Tossell noted:
That Wikipedia is chock full of useless arcana (and did you know, by the way, that the article on "Debate" is shorter than the piece that weighs the relative merits of the 1978 and 2003 versions of Battlestar Galactica?) isn't a knock against it: Since it can grow infinitely, the silly articles aren't depriving the serious ones of space.
In November 2013, pseudoscientist Rupert Sheldrake appeared on the BBC World Service raising concerns that the Wikipedia article about him presented an "extremely distorted view" and that Wikipedia editors responsible were "committed materialists" and "militant atheists" aiming to "push their own agenda". The Huffington Post republished a blog entry by Deepak Chopra in which Chopra writes that "the credibility of Wikipedia may be at stake..." because "Sheldrake's Wikipedia entry... is largely derogatory and even defamatory, thanks to a concerted attack by a stubborn band of militant skeptics." In a response published in The New Republic, University of Chicago Professor of Biology Jerry A. Coyne wrote that Sheldrake "is not being persecuted" and that Wikipedia editors were "just trying to ensure, as per Wikipedia policy, that Sheldrake's pseudoscience is not presented as credible".
Notability of article topics
There are quires, reams, bales of controversy over what constitutes notability in Wikipedia: nobody will ever sort it out.
Still, a lot of good work—verifiable, informative, brain-leapingly strange—is being cast out of this paperless, infinitely expandable accordion folder by people who have a narrow, almost grade-schoolish notion of what sort of curiosity an on-line encyclopedia will be able to satisfy in the years to come. [...] It's harder to improve something that's already written, or to write something altogether new, especially now that so many of the World Book–sanctioned encyclopedic fruits are long plucked. There are some people on Wikipedia now who are just bullies, who take pleasure in wrecking and mocking peoples' work—even to the point of laughing at nonstandard "Engrish." They poke articles full of warnings and citation-needed notes and deletion prods till the topics go away.
Yet another criticism about the deletionists is this: "The increasing difficulty of making a successful edit; the exclusion of casual users; slower growth – all are hallmarks of the deletionists approach."
Wikipedia's notability policy resembles U.S. immigration policy before 9/11: stringent rules, spotty enforcement. To be notable, a Wikipedia topic must be "the subject of multiple, non-trivial published works from sources that are reliable and independent of the subject and of each other." Although I have written or been quoted in such works, I can't say I've ever been the subject of any. And wouldn't you know, some notability cop cruised past my bio and pulled me over. Unless I get notable in a hurry—win the Nobel Peace Prize? Prove I sired Anna Nicole Smith's baby daughter?—a "sysop" (volunteer techie) will wipe my Wikipedia page clean. It's straight out of Philip K. Dick.
In the same article, Noah mentions that the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Stacy Schiff was not considered notable enough for a Wikipedia entry before she wrote an extensive New Yorker article on Wikipedia itself.
There have been suggestions that a politically liberal viewpoint is predominant. According to Jimmy Wales: "The Wikipedia community is very diverse, from liberal to conservative to libertarian and beyond. If averages mattered, and due to the nature of the wiki software (no voting) they almost certainly don’t, I would say that the Wikipedia community is slightly more liberal than the U.S. population on average, because we are global and the international community of English speakers is slightly more liberal than the U.S. population. There are no data or surveys to back that." Andrew Schlafly created Conservapedia because of his perception that Wikipedia contained a liberal bias. Conservapedia's editors have compiled a list of alleged examples of liberal bias in Wikipedia. In 2007, an article in The Christian Post criticised Wikipedia's coverage of intelligent design, saying that it was biased and hypocritical. Lawrence Solomon of the National Review considered the Wikipedia articles on subjects like global warming, intelligent design, and Roe v. Wade all to be slanted in favor of liberal views.
In a September 2010 issue of the conservative weekly Human Events, Rowan Scarborough presented a critique of Wikipedia's coverage of American politicians prominent in the approaching midterm elections as evidence of systemic liberal bias. Scarborough compares the biographical articles of liberal and conservative opponents in Senate races in the Alaska Republican primary and the Delaware and Nevada general election, emphasizing the quantity of negative coverage of tea party-endorsed candidates. He also cites some criticism by Lawrence Solomon and quotes in full the lead section of Wikipedia's article on its rival Conservapedia as evidence of an underlying bias.
In 2012, a professor at Northwestern University and another professor at the University of Southern California analyzed Wikipedia articles on U.S. politics, going back a decade, and wrote a study that showed that articles with a large number of contributors lead to more unbiased articles, but that the majority of articles still retain a Democrat lean from Wikipedia's early years.
American and corporate bias
In 2008, Tim Anderson, a senior lecturer in political economy at the University of Sydney, said that Wikipedia administrators display a U.S.-oriented bias in their interaction with editors, and in their determination of sources that are appropriate for use on the site. Anderson was outraged after several of the sources he used in his edits to Hugo Chávez, including Venezuela Analysis and Z Magazine, were disallowed as "unusable". Anderson also described Wikipedia's Neutral point of view policy to ZDNet Australia as "a facade", and that Wikipedia "hides behind a reliance on corporate media editorials".
Wikipedia has a longstanding controversy concerning gender bias and sexism. Wikipedia has been criticized by some journalists and academics for lacking not only women contributors but also extensive and in-depth encyclopedic attention to many topics regarding gender. An article in The New York Times cites a Wikimedia Foundation study which found that fewer than 13% of contributors to Wikipedia are women. Sue Gardner, the executive director of the foundation, said increasing diversity was about making the encyclopedia "as good as it could be." Factors the article cited as possibly discouraging women from editing included the "obsessive fact-loving realm," associations with the "hard-driving hacker crowd," and the necessity to be "open to very difficult, high-conflict people, even misogynists."
Wikipedia has been criticized for allowing graphic sexual content such as images and videos of masturbation and ejaculation as well as photos from hardcore pornographic films found on its articles. Child protection campaigners say graphic sexual content appears on many Wikipedia entries, displayed without any warning or age verification.
The Wikipedia article Virgin Killer – a 1976 album from German heavy metal band Scorpions – features a picture of the album's original cover, which depicts a naked prepubescent girl. In December 2008, the Internet Watch Foundation, a nonprofit, nongovernment-affiliated organization, added the article to its blacklist, criticizing the inclusion of the picture as "distasteful". As a result, access to the article was blocked for four days by most Internet service providers in the United Kingdom.
In April 2010, Larry Sanger, a co-founder of Wikipedia who had left the organization eight years previously, 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 U.S. federal obscenity law. Sanger also expressed concerns about access to the images on Wikipedia in schools. Sanger later said that it was probably not correct to call it "child pornography", which most people associate with images of real children, and that he should have said "depictions of child sexual abuse". Wikimedia Foundation spokesman Jay Walsh said that Wikipedia doesn't have "material we would deem to be illegal. If we did, we would remove it." Following the complaint by Larry Sanger, Jimmy Wales deleted many sexual images without consulting the community; some were reinstated following discussion. Critics, including Wikipediocracy, noticed that many of the sexual images deleted from Wikipedia since 2010 have reappeared. Coincidentally, or not, in August 2013, Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales scrutinized the U.K.'s Prime Minister David Cameron’s Internet porn-filter, saying the plan is "ridiculous."
Exposure to vandals
Wikipedia has a range of tools available to users and administrators in order to fight against vandalism. Supporters of the project argue that the vast majority of vandalism on Wikipedia is reverted within a short time, and a study by Fernanda Viégas of the MIT Media Lab and Martin Wattenberg and Kushal Dave of IBM Research found that most vandal edits were reverted within around five minutes; however they state that "it is essentially impossible to find a crisp definition of vandalism". While most instances of page blanking or the addition of offensive material are soon reverted, less obvious vandalism has remained for longer periods.
A 2007 peer-reviewed study that measured the actual number of page views with "damaged" content, concluded:
42% of damage is repaired almost immediately, i.e., before it can confuse, offend, or mislead anyone. Nonetheless, there are still hundreds of millions of damaged views.
Most privacy concerns refer to cases of government or employer data gathering; or to computer or electronic monitoring; or to trading data between organizations. "The Internet has created conflicts between personal privacy, commercial interests and the interests of society at large" warn James Donnelly and Jenifer Haeckl. Balancing the rights of all concerned as technology alters the social landscape will not be easy. It "is not yet possible to anticipate the path of the common law or governmental regulation" regarding this problem.
The concern in the case of Wikipedia is the right of a private citizen to remain private; to remain a "private citizen" rather than a "public figure" in the eyes of the law. It is somewhat of a battle between the right to be anonymous in cyberspace and the right to be anonymous in real life ("meatspace"). Wikipedia Watch argues that "Wikipedia is a potential menace to anyone who values privacy" and that "a greater degree of accountability in the Wikipedia structure" would be "the very first step toward resolving the privacy problem." A particular problem occurs in the case of an individual who is relatively unimportant and for whom there exists a Wikipedia page against their wishes.
In 2005 Agence France-Presse quoted Daniel Brandt, the Wikipedia Watch owner, as saying that "the basic problem is that no one, neither the trustees of Wikimedia Foundation, nor the volunteers who are connected with Wikipedia, consider themselves responsible for the content."
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 who was formerly with the Chaos Computer Club. More specifically, the court ordered that the URL within the German .de domain (http://www.wikipedia.de/) may no longer redirect to the encyclopedia's servers in Florida at http://de.wikipedia.org although German readers were still able to use the US-based URL directly, and there was virtually no loss of access on their part. The court order arose out of a lawsuit filed by Floricic's parents, demanding that their son's surname be removed from Wikipedia. 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 were being violated. The plaintiffs appealed to the Berlin state court, but were refused relief in May 2006.
Criticism of the community
Jimmy Wales' role
The community of Wikipedia editors has been criticized for placing an irrational emphasis on Jimmy Wales as a person, with phrases such as "What Would Jimbo Do?" Wales' role in personally determining the content of some articles has also been criticized as contrary to the independent spirit that Wikipedia supposedly has gained. In early 2007, Wales dismissed the criticism of the Wikipedia model: "I am unaware of any problems with the quality of discourse on the site. I don't know of any higher-quality discourse anywhere."
According to Business Insider, "In September of 2012, there was a quite a bit of media attention surrounding two Wikipedia employees (yes, they do have some paid personnel – including Jimbo who makes more than $50K per event where he is a speaker) who were running a PR business on the side and editing Wikipedia on behalf of their clients."
Selection of editors
Lack of credential verification and the Essjay controversy
In July 2006 The New Yorker ran a feature about Wikipedia by Stacy Schiff. The initial version of the article included an interview with a Wikipedia administrator known by the pseudonym Essjay, who was described as a tenured professor of theology. Essjay's Wikipedia user page (now removed) made the following claim:
I am a tenured professor of theology at a private university in the eastern United States; I teach both undergraduate and graduate theology. I have been asked repeatedly to reveal the name of the institution, however, I decline to do so; I am unsure of the consequences of such an action, and believe it to be in my best interests to remain anonymous.
Essjay also claimed on his userpage that he held four academic degrees: Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies (B.A.), Master of Arts in Religion (M.A.R.), Doctorate of Philosophy in Theology (Ph.D.), and Doctorate in Canon Law (JCD). Essjay specialized in editing articles about religion on Wikipedia, including subjects such as "the penitential rite, transubstantiation, the papal tiara"; on one occasion he was called in to give some "expert testimony" on the status of Mary in the Roman Catholic Church. In January 2007, Essjay was hired as a manager with Wikia, a wiki-hosting service founded by Wales and Angela Beesley. In February, Wales appointed Essjay as a member of the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee, a group with powers to issue binding rulings in disputes relating to Wikipedia.
In late February 2007 The New Yorker added an editorial note to its article on Wikipedia stating that it had learned that Essjay was Ryan Jordan, a 24-year-old college dropout from Kentucky with no advanced degrees and no teaching experience. Initially Jimmy Wales commented on the issue of Essjay's identity: "I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it." Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, responded to Wales on his Citizendium blog by calling Wales' initial reaction "utterly breathtaking, and ultimately tragic." Sanger said the controversy "reflects directly on the judgment and values of the management of Wikipedia."
Wales later issued a new statement saying he had not previously understood that "EssJay used his false credentials in content disputes." He added: "I have asked EssJay to resign his positions of trust within the [Wikipedia] community." Sanger responded the next day: "It seems Jimmy finds nothing wrong, nothing trust-violating, with the act itself of openly and falsely touting many advanced degrees on Wikipedia. But there most obviously is something wrong with it, and it's just as disturbing for Wikipedia's head to fail to see anything wrong with it."
On March 4, Essjay wrote on his user page that he was leaving Wikipedia, and he also resigned his position with Wikia. A subsequent article in The Courier-Journal (Louisville) suggested that the new résumé he had posted at his Wikia page was exaggerated. The March 19, 2007 issue of The New Yorker published a formal apology by Wales to the magazine and Stacy Schiff for Essjay's false statements.
Discussing the incident, the New York Times noted that the Wikipedia community had responded to the affair with "the fury of the crowd", and observed:
The Essjay episode underlines some of the perils of collaborative efforts like Wikipedia that rely on many contributors acting in good faith, often anonymously and through self-designated user names. But it also shows how the transparency of the Wikipedia process—all editing of entries is marked and saved—allows readers to react to suspected fraud.
The Essjay incident received extensive media coverage, including a national U.S. television broadcast on ABC's World News with Charles Gibson and a March 7, 2007 Associated Press story that was picked up by more than 100 media outlets listed in the Google news cache. The controversy has led to a proposal that users claiming to possess academic qualifications would have to provide evidence before citing them in Wikipedia content disputes. The proposal was not accepted.
In 2009, it was revealed that a British Labour councillor had been anonymously editing Wikipedia as 'Sam Blacketer', including many political articles in the UK. He resigned from membership of the Arbitration Committee.
Anonymity of editors
Wikipedia has been criticised for allowing editors to contribute anonymously. Its critics claim that the consequences of this include a lack of authority and accountability, and poor quality of discourse.
In Wikipedia itself the term "anonymous" is used in a much narrower sense than in the citations above. Namely only those editors that do not have a registered account, and use an auto-generated IP-labeled account, are called anonymous or "anons". To disambiguate the two notions on anonymity, in the remainder of this section the term unregistered is used for the narrower Wikipedia meaning.
Level of debate, edit wars and harassment
The standard of debate on Wikipedia has been called into question by persons who have noted that contributors can make a long list of salient points and pull in a wide range of empirical observations to back up their arguments, only to have them ignored completely on the site. An academic study of Wikipedia articles found that the level of debate among Wikipedia editors on controversial topics often degenerated into counterproductive squabbling:
"For uncontroversial, 'stable' topics self-selection also ensures that members of editorial groups are substantially well-aligned with each other in their interests, backgrounds, and overall understanding of the topics...For controversial topics, on the other hand, self-selection may produce a strongly misaligned editorial group. It can lead to conflicts among the editorial group members, continuous edit wars, and may require the use of formal work coordination and control mechanisms. These may include intervention by administrators who enact dispute review and mediation processes, [or] completely disallow or limit and coordinate the types and sources of edits."
In regards to the decline in the number of Wikipedia editors since the 2007 policy changes, another study stated this was partly down to the way "in which newcomers are rudely greeted by automated quality control systems and are overwhelmed by the complexity of the rule system."
Another complaint about Wikipedia focuses on the efforts of contributors with idiosyncratic beliefs, who push their point of view in an effort to dominate articles, especially controversial ones. This sometimes results in revert wars and pages being locked down. In response, an Arbitration Committee has been formed on the English Wikipedia that deals with the worst alleged offenders – though a conflict resolution strategy is actively encouraged before going to this extent. Also, to stop the continuous reverting of pages, Jimmy Wales introduced a "three-revert rule", whereby those users who reverse the effect of others' contributions to one article more than three times in a 24-hour period may be blocked.
In a 2008 article in The Brooklyn Rail, Wikipedia contributor David Shankbone contended that he had been harassed and stalked because of his work on Wikipedia, had received no support from the authorities or the Wikimedia Foundation, and only mixed support from the Wikipedia community. Shankbone wrote that "If you become a target on Wikipedia, do not expect a supportive community."
Consensus and the "hive mind"
Wikipedia seeks not truth but consensus, and like an interminable political meeting the end result will be dominated by the loudest and most persistent voices.
In his article, Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism (first published online by Edge: The Third Culture, 30 May 2006), computer scientist and digital theorist Jaron Lanier describes Wikipedia as a "hive mind" that is "for the most part stupid and boring", and asks, rhetorically, "why pay attention to it?" His thesis follows:
The problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it's now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn't make it any less dangerous.
Lanier goes on to argue the economic trend to reward entities that aggregate information, rather than those that actually generate content. In the absence of "new business models", the popular demand for content will be sated by mediocrity, thus reducing or even eliminating any monetary incentives for the production of new knowledge.
Lanier's opinions produced some strong disagreement. Internet consultant Clay Shirky noted that Wikipedia has many internal controls in place and is not a mere mass of unintelligent collective effort:
Neither proponents nor detractors of hive mind rhetoric have much interesting to say about Wikipedia itself, because both groups ignore the details... Wikipedia is best viewed as an engaged community that uses a large and growing number of regulatory mechanisms to manage a huge set of proposed edits... To take the specific case of Wikipedia, the Seigenthaler/Kennedy debacle catalyzed both soul-searching and new controls to address the problems exposed, and the controls included, inter alia, a greater focus on individual responsibility, the very factor "Digital Maoism" denies is at work.
Since its creation, Wikipedia ostensibly upheld the basic principle of equal status for all good faith editors. In 2010, Jimmy Wales stated that:
There must be no cabal, no elite, and no hierarchy or structure to get in the way of this openness to newcomers. Any security measures to be implemented to protect the community against real vandals (and there are real vandals, who do occasionally affect us), should be implemented on the model of "strict scrutiny".
To reduce vandalism and to control user conduct, a class of volunteer administrators or "sysops" are invested with the means and authority to discipline users. Administrator powers include deleting articles, protecting pages from editing, and blocking users; actions that ordinary (non-sysop) editors cannot do or undo. Special rules and protocols were set up to prevent administrators from abusing their powers; such as the Wikipedia:Articles for deletion (AfD) page, a forum to discuss article deletions. An administrator who wished to delete an article was required to post a notice on the article itself, and wait for comments of other editors, before carrying out the deletion. Moreover, since every sysop can undo the actions of other sysops, any reported abuse by one individual can in principle be corrected by their peers.
Nevertheless, those extra powers inevitably meant that the opinion of administrators, individually and as a whole, would prevail over that of ordinary users in certain kinds of disputes. While the principle of equality among editors was never formally revised, changes in Wikipedia policies have gradually increased the effective authority and independence of administrators. These changes intensified after 2006, when the Seigenthaler biography incident forced Wikipedia to tighten its defences against malicious edits. For instance, at some point sysops were given the authority to speedily delete, without prior discussion on the AfD, articles that were clearly malicious, or deemed inappropriate by any of several other criteria. In 2010, these criteria were further widened to include biographies of living persons (BLPs) which did not include adequate references, irrespective of their contents being verifiable or not. As a consequence of these enlarged powers, administrators have increasingly had to impose their opinion, ex officio, over that of ordinary users. At the same time, the body of Wikipedia rules and procedures kept increasing in size and complexity. This further increased the authority gap between administrators and veteran editors, who know the rules, and ordinary editors – especially novice ones.
Complaints about administrator abuse
Allegations have been made in Wikipedia's internal forums that administrator abuse has been steadily increasing in frequency and severity, and that it is one major reason for a decline in editor numbers since 2006.
Allegations of administrator abuse have circulated outside of Wikipedia in blogs, online technical forums, and in mainstream media. It has also been argued[by whom?] that, despite the perception of Wikipedia as a "shining example of Web democracy", "a small number of people are running the show." In an article on Wikipedia conflicts, The Guardian noted complaints that administrators sometimes use their special powers to suppress legitimate editors. The article discussed "a backlash among some editors, who argue that blocking users compromises the supposedly open nature of the project, and the imbalance of power between users and administrators may even be a reason some users choose to vandalise in the first place."
Consistency of complaints
The existence and significance of widespread administrator abuse is highly disputed within Wikipedia. A common rebuttal to such allegations is that a raising of editorial standards became necessary to improve the quality of Wikipedia articles. In particular, the higher rates of article deletions observed since 2006 are claimed to be necessary to meet new guidelines on allowed article topics, such as a set of "notability" requirements. The same argument is used to justify the insertion of tags in articles that warn readers against perceived flaws and/or request that other editors perform certain editorial actions.
There have been no systematic surveys of the opinions of ordinary editors about sysop behavior, or about Wikipedia governance in general. Another experiment was conducted in 2009, with the goal of determining whether Wikipedia had indeed become hostile to new editors. In this experiment, several experienced editors pretended to be inexperienced new users, deliberately created poor-quality articles, and followed their fate over the following weeks.
In 2006, Jimmy Wales claimed that the majority of Wikipedia edits are made by a group of around 500 people who "all know each other". However, at the same time it was claimed that if the amount of text was used as a metric instead of edit count, the result was often the opposite. Most of the top contributors to the content of articles were people who only edited Wikipedia occasionally, many of whom had not registered a Wikipedia account.
Excessive nature of rules
Kat Walsh, a chair of the Wikimedia Foundation, has criticized Wikipedia's increasingly detailed rules regarding editing the site, saying, "It was easier when I joined in 2004... Everything was a little less complicated.... It's harder and harder for new people to adjust."
The Wikipedia Watch criticism website in 2006 has listed dozens of examples of plagiarism by Wikipedia editors on the English version. Jimmy Wales, the Wikipedia co-founder, has said in this respect: "We need to deal with such activities with absolute harshness, no mercy, because this kind of plagiarism is 100% at odds with all of our core principles."
- Censorship of Wikipedia
- Deletionism and inclusionism in Wikipedia
- History of Wikipedia
- List of Wikipedia controversies
- Reliability of Wikipedia
- Wikipedia Review
- Wikipedia:Press coverage
- Wikipedia:Replies to common objections
- Wikipedia:Why Wikipedia is not so great
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- Wikipedia Credentials
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