University study finds drop in Wikipedia contributors

The drop was caused by the website’s own quality control tools.

by Meritte Dahl

Wikipedia contains more than 4 million articles, written by tens of thousands of users for more than a decade. In fact, the user-edited encyclopedia has become so massive, it may be collapsing under its own weight.

Since 2007, the number of active Wikipedia contributors has steadily dropped, according to a new study released by the University of Minnesota earlier this month. The study blames the decline on Wikipedia’s strict and efficient editing protocol, which discourages newcomers.

According to Aaron Halfaker, a graduate student and lead study author, the automated quality control tools used by Wikipedia are efficient at reversing vandalism but also dishearten new users whose changes or additions are rejected automatically.

Because of this, the number of new editors to Wikipedia has declined steadily since 2007, when the automated tools were put into use.

“I would be surprised if the trajectory changed at all,” Halfaker said.

The lack of retention has not affected Wikipedia’s quality levels, Halfaker said, which are “just as healthy as they ever were, if not more.”

Though many professors discourage Wikipedia use, Gary Nelsestuen encourages it.

The biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics professor uses Wikipedia in the classroom often.

Some information on Wikipedia is more current than textbooks, Nelsestuen said, particularly on environmental issues and chemical structures.

“These are enrichment tools that you cannot find in a textbook,” he said.

Because so much information is freely available to students on Wikipedia and sites like it, Nelsestuen said, he instead uses his lectures to teach concepts that aren’t as easy to simply look up.

Some of Nelsestuen’s classes also include a lesson wherein students look for and correct faulty information on Wikipedia.

“Wikipedia is free, and often you get what you pay for,” he said. “Consumer beware.”

Electrical engineering freshman Tim Pollnow said he studies from Wikipedia often but never cites it.

“Roughly half the stuff I try to learn, I end up finding on Wikipedia,” he said.

Gender and language bias

Tim Pilquist, a horticulture junior and active Wikipedia contributor, said he hasn’t run into problems when he edits articles on the site.

Pilquist started editing Wikipedia in high school and said the process is “pretty straightforward.”

But other research has identified possible gender and language bias in Wikipedia’s quality control.

A 2011 study from a group of Minnesota researchers and one Chinese researcher showed that Wikipedia rejects changes from female editors more often than male ones.

“Female editors enter at a relatively reasonable rate, but then get pushed out of the system at a higher rate,” Halfaker said. “So it’s likely this decline is biased towards female editors.”

A University of Oxford study published late last year showed that the automated quality control was biased against non-English sources as well, Halfaker said.

“If you’re citing an African newspaper that isn’t written in English it’s probably just as reliable as a resource, but you’ll have a hard time getting that information into the encyclopedia,” Halfaker said.

Wikipedia has an experimental team that’s currently working to solve the problem of the decline in participation, he said.

“They have already had a bunch of success,” he said.