How’s doing Wikipedia more than 15 years after its launch? The “Free Encyclopedia” revolutionized the domain of knowledge forever on a simple principle: anyone can edit the website and add his information on any subject. But one can wonder if it can be considered as a reliable source. The answer is, even after 15 years, still debated.


(Image: Wikimedia Foundation)

The Knowledge Shuttle

Wikipedia was launched by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger on January 15th 2001. The French version – one of the 291 editions of the website – was launched on March 23th of the same year, and was the first non-English version of the website. It is a non-profit project and it intends to stay this way. All of its content is licensed under Creative Contents 3.0 (Attribution and Share-Alike – or BY-SA, meaning it can be re-used elsewhere under the same form and if the author is credited) and GNU Free Documentation License.

As of today, Wikipedia is the 7th most visited website in the world, just after Amazon (according to the Alexa ranking). The English version contains more than 5,1 million articles and Wikipedia reached 38 million articles in November 2015. More than 134,000 active editors contribute regularly to the articles, and nearly 500 million unique Internet users visit the website each month, generating more than 18 billion page views.

Writing for the Opponent

Wikipedia has become a reference – but can it be trusted? One of the main criticisms of Wikipedia is that, as anyone can edit its articles, false or inaccurate information can be found on the website. Detractors of Wikipedia – including founder Larry Sanger – claim the information shouldn’t be trusted as a source for research, as it lacks authority and sometimes bias, contrary to previous published works like the Encyclopædia Britannica. Sanger, who left Wikipedia in 2002 to pursue his own projects, stated :

I think Wikipedia never solved the problem of how to organize itself in a way that didn’t lead to mob rule. (…) The inmates started running the asylum.

Other serious issues include vandalism and edit wars. Vandalism, in real life, is the voluntary degradation of public or private goods – on a “Wikipedian” level, the degradation targets articles. Some users, usually anonymous or unregistered, insert false information and can even delete complete articles. Those acts are, in general, the work of Internet trolls, or can be ordered by person who wish to affect the reputation of a subject matter (most notable biographies).

On the other hand, edit wars are more advanced matter: they usually happen between two different parties who want to publish their own version of the story. In general, it concerns political debates. One of the most notable examples in France happened during the debate between Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal in 2007. Wikipedia users edited the articles about the two candidates to confirm or deny their statements, hence giving false objective information.

Wikipedia’s The Defenders

With all the problems it faces, Wikipedia obviously found some solutions. The website put together a list of policies and guidelines, which are to be followed by every user. Those rules take into account a lot of various aspects of the website, from the redaction of an article to the general behavior the users should take. Of course, it isn’t mandatory to read them, but Wikipedia strongly insists even unregistered users to do it: indeed, a lot of alert messages appear while trying to edit an article. One of the most recent guidelines demands sources to be linked to the article to give reference to most statements.

Wikipedia also designated moderators and administrators to manage its community. They are granted with special tools and functions on the website – especially administrators – which allows them to quickly apply changes (rename or delete an article for instance) without much restriction. They are not Wikipedia employees but rather Internet users who proved their seriousness. For instance, the most active contributor, going by the nickname “Ser Amantio di Nicolao”, is an administrator, and has almost reached 1,6 million edits on the website – quite some experience indeed! Administrators and moderators usually are nominated by the community and have policies to respect as well.

So Far, So Good, So What?

Wikipedia has an impressive record track: who could have guessed 15 years ago that a free encyclopedia, with no intend to become commercial, would become the 7th biggest website in the world? The Internet believed that such a project could – and should – become an essential and free resource for everyone. It is thanks to the Internet community that Wikipedia grew to its current form.

But is it really reliable? On one hand, one could share Larry Sanger’s opinion (and try to create an unsuccessful Wikipedia rip-off). On the other hand, why pass the most important resource of knowledge mankind ever put together? Thanks to the work of moderators and administrators, to the multiple guidelines and policies, and finally to the different profiles of contributors, Wikipedia can be considered as a reliable source. Obviously, if you still feel unsafe about it, you can always double-check your information elsewhere – and you always should. And remember copy-and-paste isn’t regarded as a good practice in the academic field.

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AlexandreMoureyAlexandre MOUREY (@AlexandreMourey) is studying law in Strasbourg, France. Passionate about new technologies and video, he participates to several projects on the Internet, especially with his association FFL Production.

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