Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, is now one of the figureheads of the free and open web. Through Sunday, 10 August, this same movement is being celebrated at Wikimania 2014, in London. As the war between the cultural industry lobbyists and free internet supporters is far from over, MyScienceWork took a look back at this democratic tool involved in the open source and free software movements. With over 30 million articles written by volunteers, Wikipedia has paved the way for the advent of amateurs in knowledge diffusion.
Wikipedia is not dying. (Photo: Niccolò Caranti / Flickr)
Open source, free software and wiki
According to the terms of the website in question, “Wikipedia is a multilingual, web-based, free-content encyclopedia project supported by the Wikimedia Foundation and based on an openly editable model. The name "Wikipedia" is a portmanteau of the words wiki (a technology for creating collaborative websites, from the Hawaiian word wiki, meaning "quick") and encyclopedia... The objective of Wikipedia is to offer free, objective and verifiable content that anyone can modify or improve.”
This year, the fifth most visited website in the world is celebrating its 13th anniversary. The creation of this online collaborative encyclopaedia in 2001 was part of the general evolution of the way people used the Internet. Indeed, in 1993, the Internet was no longer for academic use only and went mainstream thanks to the creation of the first web browser with texts and pictures. The beginning of the 2000s corresponds to the Internet boom, with the creation of numerous online companies and the massive popularization of the web 2.0.
At that time, Jimmy Wales the founder of Wikipedia, started the Nupedia project, a (free) traditional encyclopaedia with the objective of putting knowledge online. But the lack of commitment from the experts who were called upon to write the articles made Wales drop his initial project for a correction and redaction system open to all via wiki software – a wiki being a website whose pages are easily modifiable from a web browser. This collaborative initiative, although it emerged from the failure of Nupedia, accompanied the appearance of free software and open source. According to an article in Le Monde (in French), two fundamental texts seem to have inspired this project: The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a history of hacker culture, and the call for the development of a “free, participative and universal encyclopaedia” by Richard Stallman, the creator of the GNU free operating system, in 1999.
Today, Wikipedia contains over 30 million articles, about 4.6 million of which are in English. According to Patrice Flitchy, professor of sociology at the Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, a specialist in innovation and information techniques and author of the book Le sacre de l’amateur (“The Consecration of the Amateur”): “The success of Wikipedia is probably due to its type of governance, that is the control and monitoring of content by all.” This success was confirmed when one million people gave 16 million dollars to maintain the encyclopaedic website and support the projects of the Wikimedia foundation.
When asked what the future might hold for a website that is financed by its audience’s approval, Rémi Mathis, the president of Wikimedia France answers: “Wikipedia lives through and for its contributors and its readers. As long as they want Wikipedia to exist, it will exist, as they will do what it takes to continue. A certain number of events in the corporate world seem to show that a business model based on profit is not necessarily the longest lasting.”
Since the time of Diderot et D’Alembert, the evolution of the encyclopaedia has been marked by technological innovations such as printing and the Internet. (Copyright-free image)
Many media and teaching materials now refer to Wikipedia articles and use their content. This content is produced by voluntary contributors worldwide. There are few mandatory rules for editing texts, as errors are generally quickly corrected. The reuse of content, including for commercial use, is allowed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license. The only editorial rules of Wikipedia are: the impartiality of texts, references to sources and the respect of good manners. However, some pages, like those dealing with the September 11 attacks or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are highly controversial and can host endless discussions that can turn aggressive. “When they degenerate and become too virulent, those ‘discussions’ can be curbed by the administrators, who are elected by the community of each country,” explains Patrice Flichy. “They either block the page, or they manage to establish a compromise. The French page dedicated to nanotechnology, for instance, was divided into two pages: one for popularization of the science and one showing the debates about it.”
Although the content is checked, to a certain point, to guarantee its quality, it is often criticized. However, a study carried out by the journal Nature in 2005 showed that the quality of the content on Wikipedia was similar to that of encyclopaedia Britannica, a reference in the field. For this study, experts in several disciplines compared 42 scientific entries in the two encyclopaedias. They concluded that each Wikipedia entry contained four inaccuracies on average, compared to three per entry in Britannica. The number of errors, strictly speaking, was actually the same. The editorial quality of the articles was found to be poorer on Wikipedia, while the speed of updates was very high, sometimes even immediate. Similarly, in 2007, Stern magazine showed the superior quality of 50 randomly chosen Wikipedia articles over their equivalents in the German encyclopaedia, Brockhaus.
In a nutshell, Wikipedia’s system of content self-regulation seems satisfactory in comparison with encyclopaedias edited by experts. Users, of course, need to stay vigilant and to check the cited sources, in particular for biographies or controversial topics. The studies cited here also show that even articles written by specialists should not be fully trusted. Finally, it is important not to overlook the maintenance messages at the top of Wikipedia articles. These messages indicate whether an article is controversial, if it is a stub, of good quality, lacking references, etc.
To Find Out More:
To learn the history of Wikipedia in more detail, you can visit the Wikipedia page on Wikipedia, which is ,of course, very complete.