(Priedhorsky et al., 2007, p. 267)
Wikipedia is one of the most commonly used OER encyclopedias, ranking within the top 10 commonly used website in the world (Alexa – Top sites, 2019), containing in total over 50 million articles in 304 languages (List of Wikipedias, 2019), and being “the great success story of collective action on the Web” (Priedhorsky et al., 2007, p. 259). At its core, Wikipedia is a collaborative resource, its status often referred to as “a work-in-progress” (Leitch, 2014, p. 19). Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, states that the goal of Wikipedia is to give “every single person … a free access to the sum of all human knowledge”, making it a “real Internet phenomenon”, which stands behind the core values and principles of “good writing, neutrality, reliable sources, verifiability” (Lih, 2009).
Despite its significance and frequency of use, Higher Education has often split views on its value, especially for the academic discourse. Therefore, it is important to understand the historical circumstances around this resource, its role and significance in Higher Education, as well as its future developments. This synthesis attempts to shed light on Wikipedia, both as a resource and as a community of practice in light of these topics. Some of the challenges of this assignment is an overabundance of content that deals with the adoption of Wikipedia (see Snyder, 2013 for the explanation of the growth of academic interest in Wikipedia over the years), therefore, this synthesis will be narrowed to five major sources: Reagle (2012), Leitch (2014), Snyder (2013), Messner and DiStaso, (2013) and Priedhorsky et al. (2007), based on their historical content and their significance in contribution to the study of Wikipedia and its adoption in Higher Education.
Despite the fact that Wikipedia is relatively young, being founded in early 2001 (History of Wikipedia, 2019), it is important to understand the technological and historical circumstances around its early developmental stages. The central technologies to the rise of Wikipedia are wiki, “a collaborative online format for documents-in-progress”, which was developed by Ward Cunningam in 1995 (Leitch, 2014, p. 20) and was called “WikiWikiWeb” (Reagle, 2012, p. 5). It is based on the collaborative principles of Web 2.0., moving from “the user-as-consumer model” (Leitch, 2014, p. 25) to being dependent on its users’ active contributions, thus providing an example of decentralized authority. In March 2000, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger started a project called “Nupedia”, from which Wikipedia then branched out (Reagle, 2012, p. 6). Some authors, like Reagle (2012) and Leitch (2014) trace the development of Wikipedia to the early developments of encyclopedias as tertiary sources, as some related open access projects (like Interpedia, Nupedia, Project Gutenberg, etc) while others focus on the technological developments as the determining factor in its history, such as semantic web (see Figure 1 for the historical timeline of events surrounding the establishment of Wikipedia).
The core mission of Wikipedia is represented in its title: “free encyclopedia” (Wikipedia, n.d.). Despite the fact many authors emphasize its free content, Jimmy Wales stresses that it also refers to it being free “as in speech” (Lih, 2009), referring also to its Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (Wikipedia, n.d.), which gives Wikipedia users ability and freedom to copy, modify, redistribute the content as well as redistribute its modified versions” (Lih, 2009). Presently, Wikipedia is being hosted by a non-profit organization, Wikimedia Foundation (Wikipedia, n.d.), which also supports a variety of projects, such as “Wiktionary, Wikibooks, Wikisource, Commons, Wikinews, Wikidata, Wikiversity, MediaWiki, Wikiquote, Wikispecies, Wikivoyage, and Meta-Wiki”(Leitch, 2014). Following these developments, it is important to look at Wikipedia both as a resource and a community of practice. In order to develop this understanding, it is important to first understand how Wikipedia compares with other print encyclopedias.
Many authors compare Wikipedia with print encyclopedias, showing advantages of Wikipedia. Thus, for example, Leitch (2014) states that only after 5 years of its existence, Wikipedia has “consciously begun a drive to compete successfully with print encyclopedias” with regards to the cost, physical space, and being continuously up-to-date (p. 19). Both Snyder (2013) and Messner and DiStaso (2013) agree that Wikipedia’s coverage exceeds that of Encyclopedia Britannica by 25 times of its size. Messner & DiStaso (2013) conducted a longitudinal study, comparing Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica from the perspective of social knowledge construction and standards of knowledge. They have discovered that Wikipedia is increasing in content more that Encyclopedia Britannica, and the level of the neutral tone of both resources is nearly the same (Messner & DiStaso, 2013). Lih (2014) states that Wikipedia is “several times larger than Britannica and Encarta combined” and more commonly used than the New York Times, LA Times, the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC.com, and the Chicago Tribune, seeing “more unique visitors in a single day than all these sites combined” (Lih, 2014). Snyder (2013) echoes this statement and suggests that “Wikipedia is emerging as a source that is broader than any other single source of knowledge in human history” (p. 308). Snyder (2013) and Leitch (2014) agree that Wikipedia has an advantage in its comprehensiveness. Leitch (2014) acknowledges that the very nature of Wikipedia users “correct any errors they discovered and every article could be updated in real-time” and its comprehensive coverage gives advantage to this online encyclopedia over the print ones (p. 19). Reagle (2012) has come to a similar conclusion, when analyzing the studies that compared the quality of Wikipedia articles to those of print encyclopedia, stating that “external assessments of Wikipedia quality indicate it is at parity with general-purpose print reference works”, comparing on average four inaccuracies per article in Wikipedia to three – in Encyclopedia Britannica (p. 7). Snyder (2013) points out that the vandalism or errors in Wikipedia “appear to be corrected quickly, with some authors positing that vandalism in Wikipedia is usually repaired within minutes” (p. 306). Priedhorsky et al., (2007) agree with Snyder in this and state that “42% of damage is repaired almost immediately” (p. 268), thus making sure the impact on the reader is minimal, even though it still occurs. Furthermore, Messner & DiStaso (2013) state that despite Wikipedia criticism for unreliable sources, anonymity, and hoaxes, its strict editorial procedures have brought the reliability and accuracy ratings to that of Encyclopedia Britannica (p. 466). Priedhorsky et al. (2007) have tried to estimate the degree and impact of damage as well as how often it occurs on Wikipedia, using reader-based measures.
However, Wikipedia surpasses the boundaries of being an online resource only. Many authors agree that it is also a community of practice (practice being the process of editing) (Reagle, 2012, ix). As a community of practice, Wikipedia relies on its users for edits and contributions, who through collaboration, create and determine “Wikipedia’s collective voice” (Leitch, 2014, p. 22). In his preface to Reagle’s work, Lessig states that at its core, Wikipedia “is a ‘collaborative community’ that freely and voluntarily gives to the world a constant invitation to understand and correct” (Reagle, 2012, ix). As a community of practice, Wikipedia relies on two major stances: “Neutral Point of View” and good faith collaboration (Reagle, 2012). These two stances represent the foundations of the collaborative culture of Wikipedia and prompt further exploration of the authority of this resource which is a central notion for its adoption in Higher Education. Reagle (2012) adds verifiability to these important two stances, which means that “all material in Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable, published source.” (p. 12).
The collaborative aspect of Wikipedia, makes it rely on community contributions, whose “authority is greater than that of any given contributor” (Leitch, 2014, p. 22). However, as a “work-in-progress”, Wikipedia constantly requires critical evaluation and review, which represents the principal value of liberal education (Leitch, 2014, p. 19). According to Leitch (2014), the lack of editorial control, is used both in “attacks and defences of Wikipedia” (p. 30). Snyder (2013) echoes this thought stating that the complexity of this resource “both fascinates and terrifies researchers as to the accuracy of the information, and trust in the information content of Wikipedia” (p. 308). This is demonstrated in a dichotomous view on the role of Wikipedia in Higher Education.
Many Higher Education institutions organize Wiki edit-a-thons, encourage people to edit Wikipedia articles to promote the use of library resources and “disseminate scholarly information” through it, as well as often used as a teaching tool (Snyder, 2013, p. 306). However, the mainstream opinion among education professionals discourages the use of Wikipedia as a resource in academia. Leitch (2014) demonstrates this point when discussing the two duelling experts: “Wikipedia versus the Academy” (p. 1) from the perspective of authority and trust. According to the findings of Snyder (2013), students are more likely to use Wikipedia for research purposes than faculty agrees to. Furthermore, the negative perceptions about Wikipedia are still very dominant among faculty members. Priedhorsky et al. (2007) believe that addressing the value and damage impacts its credibility. According to their findings, the most common damage in Wikipedia was classified as nonsense, offensive, and misinformation damage, the two last being the most impactful, impacting the credibility of Wikipedia (Priedhorsky et al., 2007). Due to Wikipedia’s growing popularity (including in the academic sector), Snyder (2013) states that “students need to be trained in the appropriate use of wikis and how to verify information in wikis, including Wikipedia” (p. 309). The editors of Wikipedia themselves encourage “involvement by the research community by stating ‘researchers should read Wikipedia cautiously and amend it enthusiastically” (as cited in Snyder, 2013, p. 308).
Taking into account that Wikipedia’s puzzle-globe logo signifies its “global, cooperative nature … and its status as a work-in-progress” (Leitch, 2014, p. 18), Wikipedia relies on the edits provided by the users, however, most authors, examined here agree the edits continuously decrease, with 50% of Wikipedia edits, belonging to between 1 and 2,5% of logged users (Priedhorsky et al., 2007, p. 267; Reagle, 2012, p. 8). Taking into account that Wikipedia is still relatively young, it is hard to predict how Wikipedia will evolve as the web and machine learning develop (Leitch, 2014, p. 119), thus making the future of this resource unstable and hard to predict. Despite the fact that Wikipedia might still be not openly adopted in Higher Education, Messner and DiStaso (2013) state that it shapes fundamentally the “knowledge-generation processes in society” (p. 484). It is only a fair question if it also shapes the Higher Education.
Alexa—Top sites. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.alexa.com/topsites
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Leitch, T. (2014). Wikipedia U: Knowledge, authority, and liberal education in the digital age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Lih, A. (2009). The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia. Hyperion.
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Messner, M., & DiStaso, M. W. (2013). Wikipedia versus Encyclopedia Britannica: A longitudinal analysis to identify the impact of social media on the standards of knowledge. Mass Communication and Society, 16(4), 465–486. doi: 10.1080/15205436.2012.732649
Priedhorsky, R., Chen, J., Lam, S., Panciera, K., Terveen, L., & Austin, S. (2007). Creating, destroying, and restoring value in Wikipedia. In T. Gross Bauhaus, & K. Inkpen (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2007 International ACM Conference on Supporting Group Work (pp. 259–268). New York: ACM. doi:10.1145/1316624.1316663.
Reagle, J. M. (2012). Good faith collaboration: The culture of Wikipedia. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Snyder, J. (2013). Wikipedia in the academic environment: Faculty and student perspectives. International Journal on E-Learning, 12(3), 303–327. Retrieved from https://www-learntechlib-org.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/p/38424/
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.wikipedia.org/
Figure 1. Timeline of historical events, surrounding the emergence of Wikipedia (Reproduced from Reagle, 2012, p. 43).