Content Quality and Quantity Are the Cause of Wikipedia’s Woes

By Mark Nichol

Recent coverage of Wikipedia has pointed out that the collaborative online encyclopedia is in trouble. What’s up?

It’s all about production. When Wikipedia was launched in 2001, it attracted many people who found the idea of a user-generated Web resource akin to The Encyclopedia Britannica highly appealing. Since then, multitudes of people have contributed to more than 19 million articles in nearly 300 languages, including almost 4 million items in English. And many more people have taken it upon themselves to continuously refine Wikipedia.

That’s one of its greatest strengths: Unlike print encyclopedias, which must wait until the release of a new edition to offer new entries and updates to existing ones, Wikipedia’s massive trove of information is being increased and improved constantly.

But as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales recently admitted, the pace of progress is slowing. The problem, it seems, is that many contributors are timing out.

Wikipedia, operated by the not-for-profit Wikimedia Foundation, is a volunteer enterprise. Writers and editors are not paid for their time. And now, ten years after Wikipedia’s launch, many of those contributors have moved on with their lives. (Another reason many Wikipedia writers have given for bailing out is that some of the site’s volunteer editors, displaying the all-too-common combination of ignorance and arrogance, clumsily compromise the quality of their work.)

An additional challenge is that the longtime contributors who remain, and the newcomers who have logged on more recently, are running out of things to write about.

Some late-nineteenth-century scientists have earned everlasting opprobrium for their unimaginative declarations that thanks to their manifold discoveries and those of their contemporaries, no new science of any significance would be done in the future. Just as we’ve learned a thing or two about the universe since the late 1800s, however, there will always be new material for Wikipedia, but the momentum is waning, and the number of contributors is declining.

Wikipedia has its weaknesses: Both because of and despite its open collaborative nature, factual errors occur (though they’re often caught quickly) and opinions intrude (again, usually not for long). And it doesn’t take too much time on the site to determine that the writing quality varies tremendously. Though Wikipedia claims that studies show its accuracy to be comparable to that of venerable print resources like The Encyclopedia Britannica, it cannot deny that the overall writing quality is much inferior.

It’s still a brilliant idea triumphantly realized, and I resort to it often in my work, but it’s something else as well, something that earns it a mention on this Web site: It’s an object lesson in how not to run an editorial enterprise.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’d have a great deal more respect for Wikipedia if it rested securely on the foundation of professional writers and editors who are subject-matter experts (or at least highly skilled generalist writers whose expert editors catch any problems with the accuracy of the content). That was the idea behind its predecessor, the professionally developed free encyclopedia Nupedia, of which Wikipedia was originally merely an offshoot.

Why has hardly anyone heard of Nupedia? Because it tanked. Why? As the result of a rigorous review process that, partly because only the editor in chief, Larry Sanger, was salaried, proceeded at a glacial pace.

Good writing and editing takes time and effort — and expense. Great editorial work requires even more expenditure. Nupedia died, and Wikipedia lives, but even many of those who champion the latter acknowledge that its value is as a starting point for locating authoritative information — as a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself.

If you want high-quality content — well written, impartial, and authoritative — you almost invariably have to pay for it. As Wikipedia has learned, there’s no such thing as a free launch.

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11 Responses to “Content Quality and Quantity Are the Cause of Wikipedia’s Woes”

  • cmdweb @ freewritingadvice.com

    The biggest problem with Wikipedia I’ve found is the people who are ‘policing’ pages of their own accord. Many subjects have been hijacked by individuals and they control the content according to what they believe should be on the page rather than by consensus. Contributions from others are regularly undone with acidic comments about the inputs. Many people just can’t be bothered with the arguments that ensue when subjects have been appropriated like that and so input will continue to dwindle until these people are brought to heel by the site owners.

  • Cygnifier

    At one time, I wrote a fair amount on Wikipedia. The problems of volunteer editors who combined “ignorance and arrogance” efficiently in one package (great phrasing, Mark!), those who camped on certain articles gatekeeping out content they personally didn’t like, and those who stalk contributors they’ve disagreed with to other articles just for harrassment was enough to reduce me to doing only occasionally writing and editing. The quality of the content seems to have grown quite a bit over the years. My biggest concern though is that as experts have been encouraged to write and professors encouraged to include Wiki writing assignments as part of graduate classes, the writing has become much worse. A general encyclopedia ought to be readable and understandable by general readers; it shouldn’t be characterized by the impenetrable language of specialists. Excellent, accessible writing ought to be one of the goals in conjunction with accurate, reliable information. I do think this could still be done with volunteers and open access if the trolling could be stopped and the goals of readability and reliability were emphasized.

  • L Beauchamp

    Good, timely post, Mark. Any suggestions? It’s easy to point out the myriad problems occurring with shifting Internet paradigms, and I puzzle daily about the new economic model of “free” and “volunteer” writing and writers, but I can’t fathom a solution. It’s true that writers are more accountable for results when they are paid, and writing/researching are skills that should be compensated. I would gladly offer my writing services 24/7 to a worthy cause, but I still have to pay my mortgage and buy food. We must be in transition, but in transition to what? Can anyone see down the road? In her brilliant novel “The Year of the Flood”, Margaret Atwood posits a future where the Internet is so clogged with misinformation that everyone has turned away from it as a source for reliable intelligence. What a wasted opportunity!

  • Al Broadman

    I have to be the dissenting voice here about Wikipedia being of low quality.

    Point one – Some subjects require specialist jargon. You are right that some of the subjects included in the Wiki are not written for the general public. Fact is that some subjects use specialized words that the general public will not have in their vocabulary. If you are looking to learn one of these subjects it is best to have Webster’s Dictionary open right beside your Wiki page. lol

    Point two – Some people have a very narrow opinion of what is acceptable writing. As long as I can understand the subject, I can ignore a couple of grammar errors. No one is perfect. I’m not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Point three – As a piece of personal advice – You probably want avoid Wikipedia for serious research into subjects that have deep ideological currents in the topic matter. These subjects are where you will find the most issue of misinformation. It is pretty easy to spot a good Wikipedia article and those that are not. If you find one that is not then please take the time to change it. If Wikipedia will not include the changes, please write about who stopped them and post your article somewhere else and SEO it where it comes up close to Wikipedia in the search engines…maybe use something like unauthorized or banned Wikipedia entry.

  • Precise Edit

    As a former Wikipedia contributer and editor, I understand both the inconsistent review process, the ability of users to post incorrect information or make faulty “corrections” to page, and the prevelance of hostile editing.

    What most amazes me about Wikipedia is the fact that so much of the content is, indeed, accurate and thorough.

    @CMDWEB:
    You mentioned “Many subjects have been hijacked by individuals and they control the content according to what they believe should be on the page rather than by consensus. Contributions from others are regularly undone with acidic comments about the inputs.”

    The semi-official term for this is “hostile editing,” and it has plagued Wikipedia since its inception.

  • Mark Nichol

    L Beauchamp:

    The sensible but impractical answer is to run Wikipedia as a traditional editorial enterprise. Attracting a sufficient workforce of compensated professional editors and writers is expensive and inefficient, but the result is (OK, can be) editorial excellence. But the other part of the professional model is accountability. That’s where the hoary hierarchy of writer monitored by junior editor monitored by senior editor comes in, to ensure high-quality content and prevent hostile editing. (Thanks for the vocabulary, Precise Edit!)

    Neither compensation nor accountability alone, nor both in combination, guarantees editorial rigor — the bean counters must understand that the quality of the product must be supported by the quantity of the producers — but it sure helps.

    Unfortunately, increasingly, as I’ve learned from personal experience, companies and organizations inevitably bow to financial pressure and try to produce the same amount after cutting back staff. That’s one reason I’m a freelancer; it’s too painful to have editorial integrity in an environment hostile to excellence.

  • W. Dean

    Hi Mark,

    Interesting. I did get a kick out of the ‘experts say Wikipedia is comparable to Britannica.’ Given how much of the former is cribbed from the latter, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. All the same, I do acknowledge Wikipedia’s everyday usefulness, if not its academic value. But I’m already digressing into gripes for another day.

    I wrote to suggest that we’ve likely arrived at the best point in the lifecycle of Wikipedia for the entry of real, paid editors. Most of the content is there and content experts could still have input the old-fashioned way. What’s missing is the kind of polish and development that professional editors and writers could bring.

  • Jessica Mason

    Call me old-fashioned, but I’d have a great deal more respect for Wikipedia if it rested securely on the foundation of professional writers and editors who are subject-matter experts (or at least highly skilled generalist writers whose expert editors catch any problems with the accuracy of the content). That was the idea behind its predecessor, the professionally developed free encyclopedia Nupedia, of which Wikipedia was originally merely an offshoot.

    If only. Getting paid to write Wikipedia entries would pretty much be my dream job.

  • Allister Havercroft

    I’m delighted with WP, faults and all, for what’s unique about it. Its dizzyingly wide range (stricter editing might lessen this); its usefulness for getting a quick sniff of a subject; and that it’s usually up to date.

    If one remains aware that it provides more of a point of view than majestic authority, what’s the problem?

  • Ron

    Wikipedia is a great resource. When you want information fast, it’s the only place to go. Yes, the quality of the entries can vary. If the entry is poorly written or lacks depth, I just move on.

    Sometimes when I Google a question I try some of the other hits like eHow or answers.com. There were the quality of the content go downhill fast, real fast.

    Wikipedia is free, not bad for free.

  • Alkesh

    I think Wikipedia is a concept, a concept which is useful for millions across the glob for free. Here “Free” is the catch word, and we can contribute to it any small amount like $ 5 (or even less) per month (as i do, here sitting in India). I feel such a small amount from hundred thousand people will be a great help to the site which would eventually able to pay the “quality writers and editors”. Let’s think different… 🙂

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