Jossi Fresco

Criticism of Wikipedia

Wikipedia is the largest free content encyclopedia project written by volunteers, as a result of which, it has attracted criticism. Notable criticisms include that its open nature makes it unauthoritative and unreliable (see Reliability of Wikipedia), that it exhibits systemic bias, and that its group dynamics hinder its goals. Specific criticisms include:

  • the encyclopedia's exposure to obvious or subtle Vandalism
  • criticism of the encyclopedia taken as personal attacks upon it
  • attempts by strongly opinionated editors to dominate articles
  • inaccurate or sometimes non-existent sourcing for controversial assertions in articles, and
  • edit wars and other types of nonconstructive conflict among editors.

Particularly noteworthy controversies about Wikipedia's content and editors have attracted wide and unfavorable media attention. Critics have used the Seigenthaler and Essjay incidents to call Wikipedia's reliability and usefulness as a reference into question. Wikipedia has also been the subject of parody and other humorous criticism.

Criticism of the content

Robert McHenry said that Wikipedia errs in billing itself as an encyclopedia, because that word implies a level of authority and accountability that they believe cannot be possessed by an openly editable reference. McHenry argues that
"to the ordinary user, the turmoil and uncertainty that may lurk beneath the surface of a Wikipedia article are invisible. He or she arrives at a Wikipedia article via Google, perhaps, and sees that it is part of what claims to be an "encyclopedia". This is a word that carries a powerful connotation of reliability. The typical user doesn't know how conventional encyclopedias achieve reliability, only that they do.

Frequent Wikipedia critic Orlowski wrote on a December 2005 OpEd at The Register:

"If what we today know as 'Wikipedia' had started life as something called, let's say —'Jimbo's Big Bag O'Trivia'— we doubt if it would be the problem it has become. Wikipedia is indeed, as its supporters claim, a phenomenal source of pop culture trivia. Maybe a 'Big Bag O'Trivia' is all Jimbo [Jimmy Wales] ever wanted. Maybe not.

"For sure a libel is a libel, but the outrage would have been far more muted if the Wikipedia project didn't make such grand claims for itself. The problem with this vanity exercise is one that it's largely created for itself. The public has a firm idea of what an 'encyclopedia' is, and it's a place where information can generally be trusted, or at least slightly more trusted than what a labyrinthine, mysterious bureaucracy can agree upon, and surely more trustworthy than a piece of spontaneous graffiti—and Wikipedia is a king-sized cocktail of the two.

A number of academics – such as Sarah Deutch, dean of social sciences and professor of history at Duke University, and Margaret Humphries, professor of history and associate clinical professor of medicine at Duke – have criticized Wikipedia for its perceived failure as a reliable source. A related if somewhat ad hominem criticism is that many Wikipedia editors do not have degrees or other credentials generally recognized in academia. The use of Wikipedia is not accepted in many schools and universities in writing a formal paper. Several educational institutions have blocked Wikipedia in the past while others have limited its use to only a pointer to external sources. University of Maryland professor of physics Robert L. Park has characterized Wikipedia as a target for "purveyors of pseudoscience.

Some academic journals do refer to Wikipedia articles, but are not elevating it to the same level as traditional references. For instance, Wikipedia articles have been referenced in "enhanced perspectives" provided on-line in the journal Science. The first of these perspectives to provide a hyperlink to Wikipedia was "A White Collar Protein Senses Blue Light, and dozens of enhanced perspectives have provided such links since then. The publisher of Science states that these enhanced perspectives "include hypernotes - which link directly to websites of other relevant information available online - beyond the standard bibliographic references.

Some librarians, academics, and editors of other encyclopedias consider it to have little utility as a reference work. Most university lecturers discourage students from citing any encyclopedia in academic work, preferring primary sources. One university program and several schools have even banned Wikipedia citations specifically.

Wikipedia's policies state that assertions should be supported by reliable, published sources—ideally, by peer reviewed publications. Jimmy Wales, the de facto leader of Wikipedia, stresses that encyclopedias of any type are not usually appropriate as primary sources, and should not be relied upon as authoritative.

Accuracy of information

Lack of authority

Wikipedia acknowledges that it should not be used as a primary source for serious research. Librarian Philip Bradley stated in an October 2004 interview with The Guardian that the concept behind the site was a "lovely idea," and he would use it in practice, and that he is "not aware of a single librarian who wouldn't. The main problem is the lack of authority. With printed publications, the publishers have to ensure that their data is reliable, as their livelihood depends on it. But with something like this, all that goes out the window."

Robert McHenry, former editor-in-chief of Encyclopædia Britannica said in November 2004:

"The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him."

Wikipedia contains no formal peer review process for fact-checking, and due to the lack of requiring qualifications to edit any article, the contributors themselves may not be well-versed in the topics they write about. As the cultural commentator Paul Vallely put it, writing in The Independent on the subject of Wikipedia:

"Using it is like asking questions of a bloke you met in the pub. He might be a nuclear physicist. Or he might be a fruitcake.

Due to lack of intrinsic authority, Wikipedia has been also criticized for relying too much on citing sources, particularly in disputed articles, instead of relying on expert authority for the credibility of its contents.

Comparative study on scientific articles conducted by Nature

In December 2005 the journal Nature conducted a single-blind study comparing the accuracy of a sample articles from Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica. The sample included 42 articles on scientific topics, including biographies of well-known scientists. The articles were compared for accuracy by academic reviewers that remained anonymous − a customary practice for journal article reviews. Based on their review, the average Wikipedia article contained 4 errors or omissions; the average Britannica article, 3. The study concluded:

Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries, a Nature investigation finds.
Encyclopædia Britannica's initial concerns led to Nature releasing further documentation of its survey method. Based on this additional information, Encyclopædia Britannica denied the validity of the Nature study, claiming that it was "fatally flawed" as the Britannica extracts were compilations that sometimes included articles written for the youth version. Nature acknowledged the compiled nature of some of the Britannica extracts, but disputed the claim that this invalidated the conclusions of the study. Encyclopædia Britannica also argued that the Nature study showed that while the error rate between the two encyclopedias was similar, a breakdown of the errors indicated that the mistakes in Wikipedia were more often the inclusion of incorrect facts, while the mistakes in Britannica were "errors of omission", claiming that
Britannica was far more accurate than Wikipedia according to the figures; the journal simply misrepresented its own results.
Nature has since rejected the Britannica response and published a point-by-point response to Britannica's specific objections about alleged errors.

Lack of fact checking on esoteric topics

Inaccurate information that is not obviously false may persist in Wikipedia for a long time before it is challenged. The most prominent cases reported by mainstream media involved biographies of living persons.

The Seigenthaler incident demonstrated that the subject of a biographical article must sometimes fix blatant lies about his own life. In November 2005, a user edited the biographical article on John Seigenthaler Sr. so that it contained several false and defamatory statements. The inaccurate claims went unnoticed between May and September 2005 when they were discovered by Victor S. Johnson, Jr., a friend of Seigenthaler. Wikipedia content is often mirrored at sites such as, which means that incorrect information can be replicated alongside correct information through a number of web sources. Such information can develop a misleading air of authority because of its presence at such sites:

Then [Siegenthaler's] son discovered that his father's hoax biography also appeared on two other sites, and, which took direct feeds from Wikipedia. It was out there for four months before Seigenthaler realised and got the Wikipedia entry replaced with a more reliable account. The lies remained for another three weeks on the mirror sites downstream.

In another example, on March 2, 2007, reported that Hillary Rodham Clinton had been incorrectly listed for 20 months in her Wikipedia biography as valedictorian of her class of 1969 at Wellesley College. (Hillary Rodham was not the valedictorian, though she did speak at commencement.) The article included a link to the Wikipedia edit, where the incorrect information was added on July 9, 2005. After the MSNBC report, the inaccurate information was removed the same day. Between the two edits, the wrong information had stayed in the Clinton article while it was edited more than 4,800 times over 20 months.

Attempts to perpetrate hoaxes may not be confined to editing Wikipedia articles. In October 2005 Alan Mcilwraith, a former call centre worker from Scotland created a Wikipedia article in which he claimed to be a highly decorated war hero. The article was quickly identified by other users as unreliable (see Wikipedia Signpost/2006-04-17/Persistent hoax). However, Mcilwraith had also succeeded in convincing a number of charities and media organizations that he was who he claimed to be:

The 28-year-old, who calls himself Captain Sir Alan McIlwraith, KBE, DSO, MC, has mixed with celebrities for at least one fundraising event.

But last night, an Army spokesman said: "I can confirm he is a fraud. He has never been an officer, soldier or Army cadet."

There have also been instances of users deliberately inserting false information into Wikipedia in order to test the system and demonstrate its alleged unreliability. Television personality Stephen Colbert lampooned this drawback of Wikipedia, calling it wikiality.

Wikipedia considers Vandalism the insertion of false and misleading information in bad faith. The Wikipedia page Researching with Wikipedia states:

Wikipedia's radical openness means that any given article may be, at any given moment, in a bad state: for example, it could be in the middle of a large edit or it could have been recently vandalized. While blatant vandalism is usually easily spotted and rapidly corrected, Wikipedia is certainly more subject to subtle vandalism than a typical reference work.

Neutral point of view and conflicts of interest

The concept of a neutral point of view (NPOV), which is regarded as a non-negotiable principle of Wikipedia, has itself been criticized as an impossible ideal due to the inevitable biases of editors. In an interview with Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia critic Robert Cox, NPR commentator Mark Glaser stated:
"I keep hearing from my readers (many of whom I’m guessing are Wikipedians or ex-Wikipedians) that attaining NPOV is impossible, that everyone has bias and introduces it in some way...Can anyone write from an NPOV? Doesn’t everyone have inherent biases?
Other critics allege that NPOV privileges "mainstream points of view" and imagines that they are neutral, when often mainstream points of view legitimize existing power relations. These critics also argue that NPOV accepts mainstream ideas about what is "radical" and "progressive," rather than applying a consistent standard of critique and assessment to "mainstream" and "progressive" contributions.
Scientific disputes

The 2005 Nature study also reported on the outcomes of two scientific disputes on Wikipedia. The first dispute was on the topic of violence in schizophrenia, and pitted the neuropsychologist Vaughan Bell against some anonymous editors. Nature did not report on the outcome of this first dispute. The second dispute reported by Nature involved the climate researcher William Connolley, again opposed by anonymous editors. (editor's note: Nature considered anonymous editors that did not use their real names). The topic in this second dispute was climate change; Nature reported that this dispute was far more protracted, and led to arbitration, which took three months to produce a decision. The outcome of arbitration, as reported by Nature, was a six-month parole for Connolley − during this time he was restricted to one revert per day. Connolley's opponents were reportedly banned from editing climate articles also for six months.

Exposure to political operatives and advocates
While Wikipedia policy requires articles to have a neutral point of view, it is not immune from attempts by outsiders (or insiders) with an agenda to place a spin on articles. In January 2006 it was revealed that several staffers of members of the U.S. House of Representatives had embarked on a campaign to cleanse their respective bosses' biographies on Wikipedia, as well as inserting negative remarks on political opponents. References to a campaign promise by Martin Meehan to surrender his seat in 2000 were deleted, and negative comments were inserted into the articles on U.S. Senator Bill Frist and Eric Cantor, a congressman from Virginia. Numerous other changes were made from an IP address which is assigned to the House of Representatives. In an interview, Wikipedia de facto leader Jimmy Wales remarked that the changes were "not cool. Some organizations are making efforts to correct inaccuracies. For example, the Telegraph reported that a Boston-based media watchdog asked supporters to help edit clearly anti-Israeli biases in Wikipedia articles.

Articles dealing with Latin American history and groups (such as the Sandinistas and Cuba) are often written from a quasi-Marxist perspective which treats socialist dictatorships favorably. (+)

In April 2008, the Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) organized an e-mail campaign to correct perceived Israel-related biases and inconsistencies in Wikipedia. Excerpts of some of the e-mails were published in the July 2008 issue of Harper's Magazine under the title of "Candid camera". CAMERA argued the excerpts were unrepresenative and that it had campaigned "toward encouraging people to learn about and edit the online encyclopedia for accuracy". Five editors involved in the campaign were sanctioned by Wikipedia administrators.

On August 31 2008, The New York Times ran an article detailing the edits made to the biography of Sarah Palin in the wake of her nomination as running mate of John McCain. The editor responsible for adding many flattering details was identified as single-purpose account of a McCain campaign volunteer.

Rush Limbaugh, an American conservative political commentator and radio personality who has been familiar with Wikipedia since at least November 2005, has called Wikipedia "liberal" on his long-running and popular radio show.

Editing for financial rewards
In January 2007 Rick Jelliffe claimed in a story carried by CBS and IDG News Service that Microsoft had offered him compensation in exchange for his future editorial services on Wikipedia's articles related to OOXML (Open Office Extensible Markup Language). A Microsoft spokesperson, quoted by CBS, commented that "Microsoft and the writer, Rick Jelliffe, had not determined a price and no money had changed hands - but they had agreed that the company would not be allowed to review his writing before submission". Also quoted by CBS, Jimmy Wales expressed his dissapproval of Microsoft's involvement: "We were very disappointed to hear that Microsoft was taking that approach".

In story covered by the BBC, former Novell chief scientist Jeffrey Merkey claimed that in exchange for a donation his Wikipedia entry was edited in his favor. Jay Walsh, a spokesman for Wikipedia, flatly denied the allegations in an interview given to the Daily Telegraph.

In a story covered by InformationWeek, Eric Goldman, assistant law professor at Santa Clara University in California argued that "eventually, marketers will build scripts to edit Wikipedia pages to insert links and conduct automated attacks on Wikipedia", thus putting the encyclopedia beyond the ability of its editors to provide countermeasures against the attackers, particularly because of a vicious circle where the strain of responding to these attacks drives core contributors away, increasing the strain on those who remain.

WikiScanner systematically exposes biased editors
In August 2007, a tool called WikiScanner developed by Virgil Griffith, a visiting researcher from the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, was released to match anonymous IP edits in the encyclopedia with an extensive database of addresses. Griffith said he developed WikiScanner
to create minor public-relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike (and) to see what 'interesting organizations' are up to.
News stories appeared about IP addresses from various organizations such as the Central Intelligence Agency, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Diebold, Inc. and the Australian government being used to make edits to Wikipedia articles, sometimes of an opinionated or questionable nature. The BBC quoted a Wikipedia spokesperson as praising the tool: "We really value transparency and the scanner really takes this to another level. Wikipedia Scanner may prevent an organisation or individuals from editing articles that they're really not supposed to. Another story stated that an IP address from the BBC itself had been used to vandalize the article on George W. Bush.

The WikiScanner story was also covered by The Independent, which stated that many "censorial interventions" by editors with vested interests on a variety of articles in Wikipedia had been discovered:

"[Wikipedia] was hailed as a breakthrough in the democratisation of knowledge. But the online encyclopedia has since been hijacked by forces who decided that certain things were best left unknown... Now a website designed to monitor editorial changes made on Wikipedia has found thousands of self-serving edits and traced them to their original source. It has turned out to be hugely embarrassing for armies of political spin doctors and corporate revisionists who believed their censorial interventions had gone unnoticed.

Jimmy Wales, who played a central role in the founding of Wikipedia, spoke enthusiastically about Wikipedia Scanner: "It's awesome -- I love it...It brings an additional level of transparency to what's going on at Wikipedia...Wikipedia Scanner uses information we've been making publicly available forever, hoping someone would do something like this.

Not everyone hailed WikiScanner as a success for Wikipedia. Oliver Kamm, in an article for The Times, argued instead that:

The WikiScanner is thus an important development in bringing down a pernicious influence on our intellectual life. Critics of the web decry the medium as the cult of the amateur. Wikipedia is worse than that; it is the province of the covert lobby. The most constructive course is to stand on the sidelines and jeer at its pretensions.
Conflicts involving policy makers
In February 2008, British technology news and opinion website The Register published an article called "Wikipedia ruled by 'Lord of the Universe'", in which it was pointed out that despite the fact that a prominent administrator of Wikipedia, Jossi Fresco, declared a conflict of interest related to Prem Rawat, the article alleged that not only did Fresco edit the article of Prem Rawat to keep criticism to bare minimum, he altered the Wikipedia policies over personal biography and policies regarding "conflict of interest", to favour his alleged "biased" editing. The article pointed out that Fresco was also involved in Wikipedia's "Conflict of Interest Noticeboard", the situation which the Register article described as "a conflict of conflict of interest". The article ended with the claim:
Jossi Fresco may bear the most extreme conflict of interest in the history of Wikipedia - and he edits the policy that governs conflict of interest.

Some of the most scathing criticism of Wikipedia's claimed neutrality came in The Register, which in turn was allegedly criticized by founding members of the project. According to The Register:

In short, Wikipedia is a cult. Or at least, the inner circle is a cult. We aren't the first to make this observation.

On the inside, they reinforce each other's beliefs. And if anyone on the outside questions those beliefs, they circle the wagons. They deny the facts. They attack the attacker. After our Jossi Fresco story, Fresco didn't refute our reporting. He simply accused us of "yellow journalism". After our article, Wales called us "trash".

Quality of the presentation

"Waffling" prose, "antiquarianism" and quality of writing

Roy Rosenzweig, in a June 2006 essay that combined both praise and criticism of Wikipedia, had several criticisms of its prose and its failure to distinguish the genuinely important from the merely sensational. While acknowledging that Wikipedia is "surprisingly accurate in reporting names, dates, and events in U.S. history" (Rosenzweig's own field of study) and that most of the few factual errors that he found "were small and inconsequential" and that "some errors simply repeat widely held but inaccurate beliefs," many of which are also reflected in Encarta and the Britannica; nonetheless
"Good historical writing requires not just factual accuracy but also a command of the scholarly literature, persuasive analysis and interpretations, and clear and engaging prose. By those measures, American National Biography Online easily outdistances Wikipedia."

Contrasting Wikipedia's treatment of Abraham Lincoln to that of Civil War historian James McPherson in American National Biography Online, he acknowledges that both are essentially accurate and cover the major episodes in Lincoln's life, but praises "McPherson’s richer contextualization… his artful use of quotations to capture Lincoln’s voice … and … his ability to convey a profound message in a handful of words." By contrast, he cites an example of Wikipedia's prose that he finds "both verbose and dull." Further, he contrasts "the skill and confident judgment of a seasoned historian" displayed by McPherson and others to the "antiquarianism" of Wikipedia (which he compares in this respect to American Heritage magazine), and states that while Wikipedia often provides extensive references, they are not the best ones. Still, he acknowledges that "not all historians write as well as McPherson and [Alan] Brinkley, and some of the better-written Wikipedia entries provide more engaging portraits than some sterile and routine entries in American National Biography Online.

Rosenzweig also criticizes the "waffling—encouraged by the npov policy—[that] means that it is hard to discern any overall interpretive stance in Wikipedia history." He cites as an example of this the conclusion of Wikipedia's article on William Clarke Quantrill. While generally praising the article, he nonetheless points to its "waffling" conclusion: "Some historians…remember him as an opportunistic, bloodthirsty outlaw, while others continue to view him as a daring soldier and local folk hero."

Other critics have made similar charges that, even if Wikipedia articles are factually accurate, they are often written in a poor, almost unreadable style. Frequent Wikipedia critic Andrew Orlowski commented: "Even when a Wikipedia entry is 100 per cent factually correct, and those facts have been carefully chosen, it all too often reads as if it has been translated from one language to another then into to a third, passing an illiterate translator at each stage.

In article in The Times of London Jimmy Wales stood by the quality of the presentation in Wikipedia:

“I am unaware of any problems with the quality of discourse on the site,” he said. “I don’t know of any higher-quality discourse anywhere.”

Wall Street Journal debate

In the 2006-09-12 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Jimmy Wales debated with Dale Hoiberg, editor-in-chief of Encyclopedia Britannica. Hoiberg focused on a need for expertise and control in an encyclopedia and cited Lewis Mumford that overwhelming information could “bring about a state of intellectual enervation and depletion hardly to be distinguished from massive ignorance.”

Wales emphasized Wikipedia's differences, and asserted that openness and transparency lead to quality. Hoiberg claimed that he “had neither the time nor space to respond to [criticisms]” and “could corral any number of links to articles alleging errors in Wikipedia,” to which Wales responded: “No problem! Wikipedia to the rescue with a fine article,” and included a link to the Wikipedia article Criticism of Wikipedia.

Systemic bias in coverage

Wikipedia has been accused of systemic bias, which is to say, its general nature leads without necessarily any conscious intention, to the propagation of various prejudices. Although many articles in newspapers have concentrated on minor indeed trivial factual errors in Wikipedia articles, there are also concerns about large scale, presumably unintentional effects from the increasing influence and use of Wikipedia as a research tool at all levels. In an article in the Times Higher Education magazine (London) the radical philosopher Martin Cohen accused Wikipedia of having "become a monopoly" with "all the prejudices and ignorance of its creators imposed too". Cohen cites the examples of the Wikipedia entries on Maoism (which he implies is unfairly characterised as simply the use of violence to impose political ends) and Socrates who (on Wikipedia at least) is "Plato's teacher who left behind not very many writings". This last, to readers of the Times Higher Education at least, is patent nonsense, but illustrates the shallow knowledge base of editors who then proceed to make sweeping judgements. There are many other instances which have been discussed both within and outside Wikipedia of the supposed 'Western, 'white' bias of the encyclopedia, such as the assertion that 'philosophy' as an activity is essentially a European invention and discovery. Cohen accuses Wikipedia's editors of having a 'youthful cab-drivers' perspective, by which he means they are strongly opinionated and lack the tools of serious researchers to adopt a more objective standpoint.

Another example of claimed systemic bias is the tendency to cover topics in a detail disproportionate to their importance. As an example, Stephen Colbert once mock-praised Wikipedia for having a "longer entry on 'lightsabers' than it does on the 'printing press.'" In an interview with The Guardian, Dale Hoiberg, the editor-in-chief of Encyclopædia Britannica, noted:

people write of things they're interested in, and so many subjects don't get covered; and news events get covered in great detail. In the past, the entry on Hurricane Frances was more than five times the length of that on Chinese art, and the entry on Coronation Street was twice as long as the article on Tony Blair.
This flaw has been the subject of a game known as "Wikigroaning", a term coined by Jon "DocEvil" Hendren of the website Something Awful. In the game, two articles (preferably with similar names) are compared: one about a serious subject and the other about a topic important only to a select group of fans. Critics of Wikipedia concede that the encyclopedia's coverage of pop culture does not impose space constraints on the coverage of more "serious" subjects, as spelled out in the "Wiki is not paper" article. As Ivor Tossell noted:

That Wikipedia is chock full of useless arcana (and did you know, by the way, that the article on "Debate" is shorter than the piece that weighs the relative merits of the 1978 and 2003 versions of Battlestar Galactica?) isn't a knock against it: Since it can grow infinitely, the silly articles aren't depriving the serious ones of space.

Notability of article topics

The level of trivia on Wikipedia is kept in check by guidelines on notability. Online comics are particularly susceptible to deletions due to alleged lack of notability. Various theories have been proposed to explain this apparent contradiction with the lack of space constraints referenced above, including censorship to make the encyclopedia appear more "respectable" to media sources; or favoritism for particular comics, etc. and against others on the part of editors.

Wikipedia's notability guidelines (de facto policies), and the application thereof, is the subject of much criticism.

Nicholson Baker considers the notability standards arbitrary and essentially unsolvable:

There are quires, reams, bales of controversy over what constitutes notability in Wikipedia: nobody will ever sort it out.
Criticizing the "deletionists", Nicholson Baker then writes:
Still, a lot of good work—verifiable, informative, brain-leapingly strange—is being cast out of this paperless, infinitely expandable accordion folder by people who have a narrow, almost grade-schoolish notion of what sort of curiosity an on-line encyclopedia will be able to satisfy in the years to come.

[...] It's harder to improve something that's already written, or to write something altogether new, especially now that so many of the World Book–sanctioned encyclopedic fruits are long plucked. There are some people on Wikipedia now who are just bullies, who take pleasure in wrecking and mocking peoples' work—even to the point of laughing at nonstandard "Engrish." They poke articles full of warnings and citation-needed notes and deletion prods till the topics go away.

Complaining that his own biography was on the verge of deletion for lack of notability, Timothy Noah argued that:

Wikipedia's notability policy resembles U.S. immigration policy before 9/11: stringent rules, spotty enforcement. To be notable, a Wikipedia topic must be "the subject of multiple, non-trivial published works from sources that are reliable and independent of the subject and of each other." Although I have written or been quoted in such works, I can't say I've ever been the subject of any. And wouldn't you know, some notability cop cruised past my bio and pulled me over. Unless I get notable in a hurry—win the Nobel Peace Prize? Prove I sired Anna Nicole Smith's baby daughter?—a "sysop" (volunteer techie) will wipe my Wikipedia page clean. It's straight out of Philip K. Dick.
In the same article, Noah mentions that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Stacy Schiff had to write her own biography on Wikipedia because no other editor considered her notable enough.

Criticism over pornographic images

Wikipedia has also been criticised for allowing graphic sexual content such as images and videos of masturbation and ejaculation as well as photos from hardcore porn films found on its articles. Child protection campaigners say graphic sexual content appears on many Wikipedia entries, displayed without any warning or age verification.

Exposure to vandals

Note: this section considers vandalism in the dictionary sense of the word. Wikipedia itself labels as vandalism a wider range of behaviors.

Wikipedia has a range of tools available to users and Administrators in order to combat vandalism. Supporters of the project argue that the vast majority of vandalism on Wikipedia is reverted within a short time, and a study by Fernanda Viégas of the MIT Media Lab and Martin Wattenberg and Kushal Dave of IBM Research found that most vandal edits were reverted within around five minutes. While most instances of page blanking or the addition of offensive material are soon reverted, less obvious vandalism has remained for longer periods. For example, a user made several racist edits to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day that were not reverted for nearly four hours. Columnist Sujay Kumar commented: "While Wikipedia says that most vandal edits are removed within five minutes, some falsities have managed to go unnoticed. An outlandishly fake entry about Larry King's uncontrollable flatulence was posted for a month.

A peer-reviewed study that measured the actual number of page views with "damaged" content, concluded:

42% of damage is repaired almost immediately, i.e., before it can confuse, offend, or mislead anyone. Nonetheless, there are still hundreds of millions of damaged views.

Privacy concerns

Most privacy concerns refer to cases of government or employer data gathering; or to computer or electronic monitoring; or to trading data between organizations.. "The Internet has created conflicts between personal privacy, commercial interests and the interests of society at large" warn James Donnelly and Jenifer Haeckl. Balancing the rights of all concerned as technology alters the social landscape will not be easy. It "is not yet possible to anticipate the path of the common law or governmental regulation" regarding this problem.

The concern in the case of Wikipedia is the right of a private citizen to remain private; to remain a "private citizen" rather than a "public figure" in the eyes of the law. It is somewhat of a battle between the right to be anonymous in cyberspace and the right to be anonymous in real life ("meatspace"). Wikipedia Watch argues that "Wikipedia is a potential menace to anyone who values privacy" and that "a greater degree of accountability in the Wikipedia structure" would be "the very first step toward resolving the privacy problem.

A particular problem occurs in the case of an individual who is relatively unimportant and for whom there exists a Wikipedia page against their wishes.

In January 2006, a German court ordered the German Wikipedia shut down within Germany due to it stating the full name of Boris Floricic, aka "Tron", a deceased hacker who was formerly with the Chaos Computer Club. More specifically, the court ordered that the URL within the German .de domain ( may no longer redirect to the encyclopedia's servers in Florida at, though since German readers were still able to use the US-based URL directly, there was not really any loss of access on their part. The court order arose out of a lawsuit filed by Floricic's parents, demanding that their son's surname be removed from Wikipedia. On February 9, 2006, the injunction against Wikimedia Deutschland was overturned, with the court rejecting the notion that Tron's right to privacy or that of his parents were being violated. The plaintiffs appealed to the Berlin state court, but were refused relief in May 2006.

Criticism of the community

The Wikipedia community consists of people who are frequent contributors. Emigh and Herring argue that "a few active users, when acting in concert with established norms within an open editing system, can achieve ultimate control over the content produced within the system, literally erasing diversity, controversy, and inconsistency, and homogenizing contributors' voices." Editors on Wikinfo, a fork of Wikipedia, similarly argue that new or controversial editors to Wikipedia are often unjustly labeled "trolls" or "problem users" and blocked from editing. The community has also been criticized for responding to complaints regarding an article's quality by advising the complainer to fix the article themselves. Professor James H. Fetzer criticized Wikipedia in that he could not change the article about himself; to ensure impartiality, Wikipedia has a policy that discourages the editing of biographies by the subjects themselves except in "clear-cut cases", such as reverting vandalism or correcting out-of-date or mistaken facts.

The community has been described as "cult-like, although not always with entirely negative connotations. A popular joke is that Wikipedia cannot possibly work in theory, but does work in practice. A larger social community also helps in maintaining a supportive atmosphere and collective etiquette, such as resolving disputes by appealing to reliable sources and Wikipedia's own policies.

Wikipedia does not require that its users identify themselves. This anonymity has been criticized, since it does not allow editors to be held accountable for their edits. It also means that multiple people may use one account—or, more often, one person may use multiple accounts, often in an attempt to influence an argument. The latter practice is known as "sock puppetry," which is actively discouraged on Wikipedia.

Selection of editors

Stacy Schiff notes in her editorial about Wikipedia that

Wikipedia is an online community devoted not to last night’s party or to next season’s iPod but to a higher good. It is also no more immune to human nature than any other utopian project. Pettiness, idiocy, and vulgarity are regular features of the site. Nothing about high-minded collaboration guarantees accuracy, and open editing invites abuse.

Anti-elitism as deterrent for experts

Co-founder of Wikipedia, and former editor-in-chief of Nupedia, Larry Sanger, stated in an opinion piece in Kuro5hin that "anti-elitism"—active contempt for expertise—was rampant among Wikipedia editors and supporters. He further stated that "far too much credence and respect [is] accorded to people who in other Internet contexts would be labelled 'trolls'. The sort of sentiment Sanger describes is more commonly known as anti-intellectualism.

In 2006 Nature covered the launch of Wikipedia's rival Citizendum, and noted in the editorial:

Many scientists would like to help make sure this resource remains accurate, but they have no desire to navigate the treacherous waters of Wikipedia's editorial system, which accords them no official role.

Lack of credential verification and the Essjay controversy

In July 2006 The New Yorker ran a feature about Wikipedia by Stacy Schiff. Experts including the president of Encyclopædia Britannica, Jorge Cauz, and Wikipedia's de facto leader Jimmy Wales, gave their opinions on the future of Wikipedia. Cauz stated that Wikipedia risked a "decline into a hulking, mediocre mass of uneven, unreliable, and, many times, unreadable articles" and that "Wikipedia is to Britannica as American Idol is to the Juilliard School." Wales countered by stating that he would consider Britannica a competitor, “except that I think they will be crushed out of existence within five years.”

The New Yorker article included an interview with a Administrators known by the pseudonym Essjay, who was described in the article as a tenured professor of theology. Essjay's Wikipedia user page (now removed) made the following claim:

I am a tenured professor of theology at a private university in the eastern United States; I teach both undergraduate and graduate theology. I have been asked repeatedly to reveal the name of the institution, however, I decline to do so; I am unsure of the consequences of such an action, and believe it to be in my best interests to remain anonymous.''

Essjay also claimed on his user page that he held four academic degrees: Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies (B.A.), Master of Arts in Religion (M.A.R.), Doctorate of Philosophy in Theology (Ph.D.), and Doctorate in Canon Law (JCD). Essjay specialized in editing articles about religion on Wikipedia, including subjects such as "the penitential rite, transubstantiation, the papal tiara"; on one occasion he was called in to give some "expert testimony" on the status of Mary in the Roman Catholic Church. In January 2007, Essjay was hired as a manager with Wikia, a wiki-hosting service founded by Wales and Angela Beesley. In February, Wales appointed Essjay as a member of the Arbitration Committee, a group with powers to issue binding rulings in disputes relating to Wikipedia.

In late February 2007 The New Yorker added an editorial note to its article on Wikipedia stating that it had learned that Essjay was Ryan Jordan, a 24-year-old college dropout from Kentucky with no advanced degrees and no teaching experience. Initially Jimmy Wales commented on the issue of Essjay's identity: "I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it." Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, responded to Wales on his Citizendium blog by calling Wales' initial reaction "utterly breathtaking, and ultimately tragic." Sanger said the controversy "reflects directly on the judgment and values of the management of Wikipedia."

Wales later issued a new statement saying he had not previously understood that "EssJay used his false credentials in content disputes." He added: "I have asked EssJay to resign his positions of trust within the [Wikipedia] community. Sanger responded the next day: "It seems Jimmy finds nothing wrong, nothing trust-violating, with the act itself of openly and falsely touting many advanced degrees on Wikipedia. But there most obviously is something wrong with it, and it’s just as disturbing for Wikipedia’s head to fail to see anything wrong with it."

On March 4, Essjay wrote on his user page that he was leaving Wikipedia, and he also resigned his position with Wikia. A subsequent article in the Louisville Courier-Journal suggested that the new résumé he had posted at his Wikia page was exaggerated. The March 19, 2007 issue of The New Yorker published a formal apology by Wales to the magazine and Stacy Schiff for Essjay's false statements.

Discussing the incident, the New York Times noted that the Wikipedia community had responded to the affair with "the fury of the crowd," and observed:

The Essjay episode underlines some of the perils of collaborative efforts like Wikipedia that rely on many contributors acting in good faith, often anonymously and through self-designated user names. But it also shows how the transparency of the Wikipedia process—all editing of entries is marked and saved—allows readers to react to suspected fraud.

The Essjay incident received extensive media coverage, including a national U.S. television broadcast on ABC's World News with Charles Gibson and a March 7, 2007 Associated Press story that was picked up by more than 100 media outlets listed in the Google news cache. The controversy has led to a proposal that users claiming to possess academic qualifications would have to provide evidence before citing them in Wikipedia content disputes. The proposal was not accepted.

Liberal bias

Another criticism is that a politically liberal bias is predominant. According to Jimmy Wales: "The Wikipedia community is very diverse, from liberal to conservative to libertarian and beyond. If averages mattered, and due to the nature of the wiki software (no voting) they almost certainly don’t, I would say that the Wikipedia community is slightly more liberal than the U.S. population on average, because we are global and the international community of English speakers is slightly more liberal than the U.S. population. There are no data or surveys to back that. The belief in a liberal bias at Wikipedia led to the creation of Conservapedia, whose editors have compiled a list of alleged examples of bias in Wikipedia. In 2007, an article in The Christian Post criticised Wikipedia's coverage of Intelligent design, saying that it was biased and hypocritical. Lawrence Solomon of the National Review considered the Wikipedia articles on subjects like global warming, intelligent design, and Roe v. Wade all to be slanted in favor of liberal views.

Male domination

A 2007 study by Hitwise, reproduced in Time, found that visitors to Wikipedia are almost equally split 50/50 male/female, but that 60% of edits are made by male editors.

In November 2006 a group of female long-term contributors to Wikipedia formed WikiChix, a group inspired by and modeled after the female-dominated LinuxChix, in response to their perception of how male-dominated Wikipedia has become, and how uncomfortable some women are when contributing in such an atmosphere. The existence of a mailing list limited exclusively to female contributors prompted some controversy; the list was subsequently moved from the Wikimedia Foundation's servers to Wikia, the separate wiki-hosting service.

Anonymity of editors

Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger wrote:
Widespread anonymity leads to a distinguishable problem, namely, the attractiveness of the project to people who merely want to cause trouble, or who want to undermine the project, or who want to change it into something that it is avowedly not – in other words, the troll problem.

But more importantly, allowing anonymous editing generally induces a lack of authority, accountability, and healthy (or at least civil) interaction:

... Wikipedia's anonymity reduces the accountability that stimulates healthy exchanges. ... "When you put everybody in a system that is flat, where everybody can say yes or no, without any sense of authority, what you get is tribalism," ... "What has gone into the article creation is very often the result of this dysfunctional system. It presents itself with this aura of authority, whereas what goes on behind the scenes is anything but."

On many occasions, open (anonymous) editing is the source of many problems: Pettiness, idiocy, vulgarity, lack of accuracy, abuse (complete quotation).

A February 2008 article in SF Weekly details a journalist's futile attempts to track down the real identity of Wikipedia user Griot, who got involved in edit wars over the biography of Ralph Nader as well local politicians, and was eventually banned on Wikipedia for SOCK. The article draws the distinction between the press and Wikipedia:

Say what you will about the press: There is at least a measure of accountability in a newspaper that is rarely seen on Wikipedia. It's called a byline. I mean, I'm sure I've produced some less-than-brilliant work during the dozen or so years I've been a journalist. But at least I've had the guts to sign my name — my real name — to what I write.

The article also quotes Paul Grabowicz, the new-media program director for the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism:

"I guess I have the same feeling about Wikipedia and other citizen-generated sites [as I have] about the media: The more transparency the better" [...] "People should be able to find out who is producing the information."

Wikipedia itself considers editors anonymous in a much narrower sense of the word than the citations above, namely only those editors that do not have a registered account, and use an auto-generated IP-labeled account, are considered anonymous. To disambiguate the two notions on anonymity, in the remainder of this section we use the term unregistered for the narrower Wikipedia meaning.

Since unregistered editors reveal their IP addresses, which can be used by admins to register complaints with Internet service providers or to put "range blocks" in place. Admins may also choose not to block because they might exclude regular contributors who share the same IP. Knowledgeable computer users and hackers, though, are easily capable of finding ways around IP blocking. Many have suggested requiring users to register before editing articles, and on December 5, 2005 non-registered editors were prohibited from creating new articles. This does not address the larger problem of anonymity however.

The editorial process

Level of debate, edit wars, flame wars, and harassment

The standard of debate on Wikipedia has been called into question by persons who have noted that contributors can make a long list of salient points and pull in a wide range of empirical observations to back up their arguments, only to have them ignored completely on the site. An academic study of Wikipedia articles found that the level of debate among Wikipedia editors on controversial topics often degenerated into counterproductive squabbling: "For uncontroversial, 'stable' topics self-selection also ensures that members of editorial groups are substantially well-aligned with each other in their interests, backgrounds, and overall understanding of the topics...For controversial topics, on the other hand, self-selection may produce a strongly misaligned editorial group. It can lead to conflicts among the editorial group members, continuous edit wars, and may require the use of formal work coordination and control mechanisms. These may include intervention by administrators who enact dispute review and mediation processes, [or] completely disallow or limit and coordinate the types and sources of edits.

Another complaint about Wikipedia focuses on the efforts of contributors with idiosyncratic beliefs, who push their point of view in an effort to dominate articles, especially controversial ones. This sometimes results in revert wars and pages being locked down. In response, an Arbitration Committee has been formed on the English Wikipedia that deals with the worst alleged offenders—though a conflict resolution strategy is actively encouraged before going to this extent. Also, to stop the continuous reverting of pages, Jimmy Wales introduced a "three-revert rule", whereby those users who reverse the effect of others' contributions to one article more than three times in a 24-hour period may be blocked.

Another edit war reported in mainstream press happened soon after the death of Kenneth Lay, the disgraced former CEO of Enron, who died due to a heart attack. Several editors to the encyclopedia added content to Lay's Wikipedia biography surmising that the death was in fact a suicide, well in advance of any official determination of cause of death. Such edits were reverted and re-inserted several times; eventually the article reported the cause of death as a heart attack. As of July 2007, there is no evidence to suggest that Lay's death was by other than natural causes. The edit history of the article was investigated by the press, and the Washington Post published a column on the subject.

A SF Weekly article commented on the stakes of edit wars:

Many an edit war may seem like a fight over nothing to the casual observer, but considering that according to its staff, the popular, multilingual Web site gets about 7 billion views per month, stakes can be high. An edit yields what millions of people read on the site on any particular topic.

A common complaint about Wikipedia concerns so-called "flame wars", or deliberate insults made by users to create a hostile environment. This concern has been acknowledged by Wikipedia; civility and "no personal attacks are official policies of the project, and the concept of "wikiquette" has been adopted by some users in response.

In an article in The Brooklyn Rail, former Wikipedia contributor David Shankbone contended that he had been harassed and stalked because of his work on Wikipedia, had received no support from the authorities or the Wikimedia Foundation, and only mixed support from the Wikipedia community. Shankbone wrote that "If you become a target on Wikipedia, do not expect a supportive community.

Consensus and the "hive mind"

Oliver Kamm, in an article for The Times, expressed skepticism toward Wikipedia's reliance on CON in forming its content:

Wikipedia seeks not truth but consensus, and like an interminable political meeting the end result will be dominated by the loudest and most persistent voices.

In his article, Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism (first published online by Edge: The Third Culture, 30 May 2006), computer scientist and digital theorist Jaron Lanier describes Wikipedia as a "hive mind" that is "for the most part stupid and boring," and asks, rhetorically, "why pay attention to it?" His thesis follows:

The problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it's now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn't make it any less dangerous.

Lanier goes on to point out the economic trend to reward entities that aggregate information, rather than those that actually generate content. In the absence of "new business models," the popular demand for content will be sated by mediocrity, thus reducing or even eliminating any monetary incentives for the production of new knowledge.

Lanier's opinions produced some strong disagreement. Internet consultant Clay Shirky noted that Wikipedia has many internal controls in place and is not a mere mass of unintelligent collective effort:

Neither proponents nor detractors of hive mind rhetoric have much interesting to say about Wikipedia itself, because both groups ignore the details... Wikipedia is best viewed as an engaged community that uses a large and growing number of regulatory mechanisms to manage a huge set of proposed edits... To take the specific case of Wikipedia, the Seigenthaler/Kennedy debacle catalyzed both soul-searching and new controls to address the problems exposed, and the controls included, inter alia, a greater focus on individual responsibility, the very factor “Digital Maoism” denies is at work.

However, critics charge that unless one is both familiar with Wikipedia and willing to spend a certain amount of time on Wikipedia these safeguards can and do fail.

In a 2005 study, Emigh and Herring note that there are not yet many formal studies of Wikipedia or its model, and suggest that Wikipedia achieves its results by social means—self-norming, a core of active users watching for problems, and expectations of encyclopedic text drawn from the wider culture.

Social stratification


An article in Computer Power User asserted that former editors of Wikipedia formed Wikitruth, a site that exposes alleged censorship and infighting on the encyclopedia: "Former editors recently created, which purports to expose articles and edits that Wikipedia censors and other “atrocities” involving in-fighting among the administrators. According to InformationWeek, Jimmy Wales dismissed the site as a "hoax" created by editors who had their articles deleted or modified on Wikipedia.

In an article on Wikipedia conflicts, The Guardian noted criticism that administrators of the site, who have "special powers to lock down vulnerable articles from further editing, and temporarily block problem users from making changes to the site", sometimes abuse those powers to suppress legitimate editors. The article discussed "a backlash among some editors, who argue that blocking users compromises the supposedly open nature of the project, and the imbalance of power between users and administrators may even be a reason some users choose to vandalise in the first place."

'My vandalism started after an edit conflict over the Courier-Journal's sports and editorial coverage, where my - what I felt were - legitimate edits on the page for C-J criticism were removed and I was blasted,' he says. 'I have being vandalising Wikipedia and its user pages for months, mostly because seeing my vandalism or that of others was funny as hell... and to punish admins.

An article on The Register, dated 4 December 2007 and entitled "Secret mailing list rocks Wikipedia", discussed the use of a private mailing list to coordinate administrative actions. A follow-up article on 8 December 2007 specifically alleged that administrators were collaborating with critics of CEO Judd Bagley to "own" articles about him and his company.


Seth Finkelstein, well-known for his criticism of Wikipedia, has reported on allegations of financial misconduct and editorial bias in his technology editorial blog hosted by the The Guardian. This report was based on the testimonial of a former foundation employee that now runs a blog highly critical of Wikipedia. The allegations were refuted by Jimmy Wales in a more balanced report on the story that ran in The New York Times. The story was also covered in less detail by USA Today, which reproduced an Associated Press release.

Impact on society

In 2008 the Scottish Parent Teacher Council blamed Wikipedia for Scotland's falling exam pass rates.

Threat to traditional publishers

Some observers claim that Wikipedia is undesirable, because it is an economic threat to publishers of traditional encyclopedias, many of whom may be unable to compete with a product which is essentially free. Nicholas Carr writes in the essay "The amorality of Web 2.0," speaking of the so-called Web 2.0 as a whole: "Implicit in the ecstatic visions of Web 2.0 is the hegemony of the amateur. I for one can't imagine anything more frightening. Others dispute the notion that Wikipedia, or similar efforts, will entirely displace traditional publications. For instance, Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, wrote in Nature that the "wisdom of the crowds" approach of Wikipedia will not displace top scientific journals with their rigorous peer review process. In fact, according to Wikipedia editing guidelines regarding the requirement of references to external primary sources, Wikipedia's existence is essentially dependent on these professional publications.

In 2005, staff at the Encyclopædia Britannica said it did not feel threatened by Wikipedia. "The premise of Wikipedia is that continuous improvement will lead to perfection; that premise is completely unproven," the reference work's executive editor, Ted Pappas, told The Guardian.

Humorous criticism

Wikipedia has been satirized by humorists who call attention to factual inaccuracies that may appear in articles owing to sloppy or biased editors or vandalism. For example, an article in The Onion was entitled "Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years Of American Independence" In a piece on The Colbert Report, entitled "Wikiality," Stephen Colbert encouraged his viewers to change Wikipedia's article on elephants to state that the number of African elephants had tripled over the past six months. Colbert's comments provoked a wave of vandalism of various articles at Wikipedia. On the 28 January, 2007 edition of his program, Colbert did another segment on an attempt by Microsoft to hire writers to skew certain Wikipedia articles in their favor, ending with a call by Colbert to change the Wikipedia article on "reality" to the phrase "Reality has become a commodity" and offering a $5 cash reward to the first viewer to do so. In the animated American Dad! episode "Black Mystery Month" the character Steve Smith, seeking the “one place where a person can put out crazy information with no evidence that millions will accept as true,” turns to Wikipedia. Mad Magazine has spoofed Wikipedia several times in a section of "short takes" on topics of current interest.

Allegations that Wikipedia has been used as a platform for defamation gave rise to a joke in a 2007 episode of The Simpsons, where jailed hoodlum Snake says to his girlfriend, "Hey, baby. Listen carefully. Someone’s been editing my biography on Wikipedia. I want you to kill him.

An article in The Sun derided Wikipedia for including a list of "List of big-bust models and performers". Pretending to quote an unnamed "company source", the article concluded: "It’s every computer geek’s dream come true -- definitely one of Wikipedia’s breast, I mean best, assets".

Satire also exists in the form of parody encyclopedias such as Uncyclopedia and Encyclopedia Dramatica.

See also


Further reading

  • Andrew Keen. The Cult of the Amateur. Doubleday/Currency, 2007. ISBN 9780385520805 (substantial criticisms of Wikipedia and other web 2.0 projects). Listen to: Does the Internet Undermine Culture?, NPR interview with A. Keen, Weekend Edition Saturday, June 16, 2007.
  • Sheizaf Rafaeli & Yaron Ariel (2008). Online motivational factors: Incentives for participation and contribution in Wikipedia. In A. Barak (Ed.), Psychological aspects of cyberspace: Theory, research, applications (pp. 243-267). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

External links

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