Study: Wikipedia is driving away newcomers

2:00 PM, Jan 3, 2013   |    comments
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Dan Vergano, USA TODAY

Old editors, impersonal rejection and restrictive rules are driving newcomers away from the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, report behavioral scientists.

Wikipedia, "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit," was launched in 2001 and now contains some 23 million articles, according to its own entry.

However, new rules instituted in 2007 to increase the website's quality have driven vital new volunteers away from the effort, report computer scientists led by Aaron Halfaker of the University of Minnesota in a new study in the American Behavioral Scientist journal. Wikipedia had 50,000 English-language edition editors in 2006, and now has about 35,000, they report.

The way Wikipedia works is that anyone can sign up and start editing entries in the encyclopedia. Other editors and automated screening tools can edit those edits or even reject, or "revert," them back to the entry's original text. Despite this open-ended design, the number of newcomer volunteer editors at the encyclopedia has steadily dropped over the last six years.

Why? In the study, the researchers examined the experience of 100 random newcomers with the encyclopedia, the sample chosen semester-by-semester as that coincides with trends in volunteer involvement, since 2006. That was the year that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales called for moves to tighten quality and discourage vandals from altering entries in the encyclopedia.

Overall the analysis finds rejection rates up for "quality" newcomer editors (ones that were rated as contributing useful or at least neutral changes to entry content), leaving aside the vandals, since 2006, when only about 6% of new editors found their contributions rejected (a "revert" in Wiki-speak) against more than 25% after 2010.

The changed / welcome appears to have had an effect: In 2006, about 25% of new editor volunteers stayed with Wikipedia for at least two months, but only about 11% did from then on, a trend driving the reduction in the ranks of encyclopedia editors.

"We also found that across the lifetime of Wikipedia, the probability that contributions made by desirable newcomers are rejected has increased," says the study, from very rarely in 2004 to more than half of the time now. Automated tools used to delete unacceptable submissions have increasingly played a role in rejection of newcomer contributions, going from 0% in 2006 to 40% in 2010. The study also finds evidence of "calcification" in rule-making at Wikipedia, with older editors retaining more say in changes to the enterprise or its norms of behavior, and keeping old practices intact.

The Wikipedia Foundation did not reply to a request for comment on the study.

"Wikipedia has changed from the encyclopedia that anyone can edit to the encyclopedia that anyone who understands the norms, socializes himself or herself, dodges the impersonal wall of semi-automated rejection, and still wants to voluntarily contribute his or her time and energy can edit," conclude the study authors.

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