The few, the proud: the Wikipedia authors

University research shows a small group of editors review half of Wikipedia articles.

Devin Henry

While the more than 130,000 people in the Facebook group “If Wikipedia Says It, It Must Be True” praise the online encyclopedia, University researchers have been trying to evaluate who might be behind creating the Web site’s content.

Just one-tenth of 1 percent of all people who edit Wikipedia articles are responsible for almost half the content found on the site, a team of researchers from the University stated in study results announced Nov. 5.

More than 44 percent of the information found on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia which anyone can edit, comes from a small group of editors, computer science graduate student and researcher Reid Priedhorsky said.

“The value comes not from how much effort went into construction, but its utility as an information resource.” Priedhorsky said of the site – in other words: A page’s end-product is more important than how the information got there.

Computer science professor John Riedl, a member of the research team, said the “small community” of editors responsible for the content is still a large number of people.

“Now, when I say small community, that’s still over one million,” he said.

Four graduate researchers and two computer science professors first developed software to analyze who wrote the content on each page. Then, they estimated how many times an author’s contributions were viewed and found some editors contributed far more than others, computer science professor and researcher Loren Terveen said.

“You can sort all of the people who edit by the number of word views they have,” he said.

The study also found the number of damaged, or incorrect, pages on the site is small.

Priedhorsky said a reader only has a .7 percent chance of viewing a damaged page.

When a page is changed, that edit is posted on a feed and Wikipedia members who see the feed can reverse the change if it’s incorrect.

“Among geeks it’s like the cool way to keep up with stuff that’s going on among groups of people,” Riedl said. “What we found is that almost all damage is fixed almost immediately.”

Riedl admitted this is not always the case, however, and cited the page of a person who was falsely accused of assassinating former President Kennedy. The mistake took four months to change.

Krista Kennedy, a doctoral candidate in communication, said she doesn’t think Wikipedia should be used as a primary source in writing.

“I normally ask my students to use it as a way to get the lay of the land,” she said. “I don’t ask them to cite it. It changes so quickly.”

Kennedy, who uses Wikipedia often for background information, said she once looked at the page for Greek philosopher Plato and the site said he was actually a Hawaiian weather forecaster.

Vandalism – intentionally placing wrong information – is sometimes deleted by automated robots, Riedl said; the rate of vandalism dropped in June 2006 when the robots were introduced.

Priedhorsky said damage is not limited to vandalism.

“People get really excited about people damaging Wikipedia, intentionally and maliciously causing damage,” he said, “but the very openness of Wikipedia means you can cause damage without intending to.”

Terveen said the frequent editors, who make corrections independent from Wikipedia, can quickly change damage done to the Web site simply by reverting to the previous content.

“You’re somebody who is sort of monitoring an article, you see somebody has gone in and put some bogus stuff in,” he said, “and you go in and hit the revert button, and that last round of changes is blown away.”

Despite the findings, the researchers still advise against using Wikipedia as a primary source for academic work.

“You have to understand what you’re getting,” Riedl said. “You ought to go and follow up the references at the bottom of the page and read some of the original sources to see if they really help you understand what is going on.”