Wikipedia can shape the world, not just reflect it

From randomized control trials to years of intensive content analysis, the featured scholars in our most recent Speaker Series webinar brought a range of research studies and findings to answer our two-part question, “What can we learn from Wikipedia and how do we move it forward?”

Wikipedia can shape the world, not just reflect it, according to research by panelist Neil Thompson, director of the FutureTech project at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Our experimental studies about Wikipedia have demonstrated the ways Wikipedia content makes its way into other knowledge production systems,” said Thompson, who led randomized control trials to examine the impact of Wikipedia content on scientific publishing and case law. In both studies, Thompson’s findings were clear: Wikipedia content influences real-world decisions and behaviors – in the case of his research, the decisions made in a court of law or in the development of scholarly publications.

“Because of Wikipedia’s scope, and how it is used and trusted, it has a lot of effect on the world,” said Thompson. “It’s pretty exciting, but it also speaks to the importance of getting the content as right as we can.”

Panelist Kai Zhu’s own research curiosities led him to explore how editing Wikipedia articles generates more attention paid to those articles and related articles, and the role of hyperlinks in driving this process.

“Wikipedia is not only a collection of textual content, but it is also a network of knowledge,” said Zhu, an assistant professor at Bocconi University, who emphasized the importance of the hyperlink structure of Wikipedia. “When there is a new link created, not only will more people read the linked article, but it also brings more content contribution because of that visibility.”

When panelist Shira Klein jumped into a Wikipedia talk page discussion in 2018, she never predicted it would lead to a two-year collaborative research study and a subsequent publication with nearly 55,000 views and counting. 

“The skirmish [on the talk page] was the tip of the iceberg,” said Klein, associate professor of history at Chapman University, who joined a debate between editors to support the citation of “Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz,” a book published by Princeton University Press and Random House in 2006. This experience led Klein to discover a group of editors working systematically to simplify and distort Holocaust history on the English-language Wikipedia.

In her research, Klein found that misleading information about Jews in Poland has been added to Wikipedia despite its policy violations, noting how the organized efforts of groups of editors to maintain the misinformation can lead to unchecked distortions in articles.

Along with her co-author, Klein studied 25 public Wikipedia articles and nearly 300 back pages, including noticeboards, arbitration cases, and talk pages. Together with interviews with editors and statistical data from Wikipedia, the analysis demonstrated how the addition of content that violates Wikipedia policies can evade scrutiny, leading to distortions and misinformation.

“One thing I’m curious about is what other areas on Wikipedia have this burning issue,” said Klein. “Is there a correlation between the amount of disinformation on a topic and the amount of dispute it has triggered on Wikipedia?”

For more than ten years, panelist Rosta Farzan has studied the social experience of new Wikipedia editors, including why people begin to edit and what helps them not only continue to edit but also contribute higher quality content to articles. According to Farzan’s research, intentional socialization practices for new editors can lead to their long term engagement with Wikipedia. 

Farzan, an associate professor in the School of Computing and Information at the University of Pittsburgh, emphasized the positive impact of the structure and support provided by Wiki Education’s Wikipedia Student Program

“The students feel proud of working on Wikipedia articles,” said Farzan. “Newcomers who join through classes are more likely to continue editing on Wikipedia compared to other comparable newcomers. They write more, they write better quality, and they stay on Wikipedia longer.”

Interested in hearing more from the panelists and other featured scholars? Catch up on our Speaker Series programs on YouTube and be sure to join our next webinar, “Wikipedia and Education, globally”, on Tuesday, May 14, 10 am PDT / 1 pm EDT.


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