Bridging the Gap Between Wikipedia and Academia
New Research on Digital Societies (NeRDS) group, Kozminski University, Jagiellonska 59, 03-301 Warszawa,
Poland. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Research Group on Open Science & Innovation, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Av. Tibidabo, 39-43, 08035
Barcelona, Spain. E-mail: email@example.com
In this opinion piece, we would like to present a short liter-
ature review of perceptions and reservations towards
Wikipedia in academia, address the common questions
about overall reliability of Wikipedia entries, review the
actual practices of Wikipedia usage in academia, and con-
clude with possible scenarios for a peaceful coexistence.
Because Wikipedia is a regular topic of JASIST publica-
tions (Lim, 2009; Meseguer-Artola, Aibar, Llad
on, & Lerga, 2015; Mesgari, Okoli, Mehdi, Nielsen,
aki, 2015; Okoli, Mehdi, Mesgari, Nielsen, &
aki, 2014), we hope to start a useful discussion with
the right audience.
Common View of Academics on Wikipedia
Michael Gorman, former president of the American
Library Association, once stated that “a professor who
encourages the use of Wikipedia is the intellectual equiva-
lent of a dietician who recommends a steady diet of Big
Macs with everything” (as cited in, Reagle, 2010, p. 138).
This quote quite accurately exemplifies the general mistrust
many academics share towards Wikipedia. Those who con-
tribute to Wikipedia are perceived as having “hive mind
mentality” and subscribing to “digital Maoism,” which dep-
recates intelligence and destroys individualism (Lanier,
2006). Editing Wikipedia is perceived as something unwor-
thy; that “only schmucks would do that. Or losers” (Andrew
Keen as cited in, Parvaz, 2011). In general, Wikipedians are
considered at best to be a group of amateurs unable to
deliver at high academic standards (Keen, 2007). Some
scholars even insist that Wikipedia cannot possibly survive,
because of its radically open model, encouraging vandal-
isms, and a community whose enthusiasm will inevitably
wane: Since 2005 Eric Goldman, a professor of law at Santa
Clara University, keeps predicting that “Wikipedia Will Fail
Within 5 Years” (Goldman, 2005), changing only the
expected demise date (Anderson, 2009).
Even people sympathetic to open collaboration models,
consider Wikipedia to rely mainly on the wisdom of crowds,
not necessarily on actual expertise (Surowiecki, 2004). It is
called a “flawed knowledge community” (Roberts & Peters,
2011, p. 36), a broken surrogate. And the common view
seems to be that even if experts participate, they may experi-
ence a hard time on Wikipedia. This is so:
Since experts enjoy no special privileges in dispute resolution,
and since there are many aggressive non-experts who care
deeply about a wide variety of topics, Wikipedia’s anti-expert
tendencies unsurprisingly work against continual improvement
(Sanger, 2009, p. 64).
Moreover, for some academics Wikipedia is synonymous
with plagiarism. Even though Wikipedia itself could serve
as a paragon of proper copyright policies, the fact that so
many students use Wikipedia (Lim, 2009), and also some-
times copy from Wikipedia verbatim, may result in Wikipe-
dia being guilty by association.
A lot of the general distrust towards Wikipedia stems from
the view that a collaboratively generated encyclopedia cannot
meet the high standards of quality (Denning, Horning, Parnas,
& Weinstein, 2005; Wallace & Van Fleet, 2005). Neverthe-
less, it is worth noting that the specific details of Wikipedia’s
collaborative editing system are often not very well known,
and sometimes misunderstood, even by academics (Aibar,
os-Masllorens, Meseguer-Artola, Minguill
on, & Lerga,
2015) Regarding the editors’ profiles, a recent survey con-
cluded that most of them are well educated and 61% have, at
least, a college degree (Wikimedia Foundation, 2011).
Received September 14, 2015; revised November 10, 2015; accepted
November 11, 2015
C2016 ASIS&T Published online 4 April 2016 in Wiley Online Library
(wileyonlinelibrary.com). DOI: 10.1002/asi.23691
JOURNAL OF THE ASSOCIATION FOR INFORMATION SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, 67(7):1773–1776, 2016
Although many of the reservations are understandable,
there is also an obvious elephant in the room: Wikipedia
challenges the established model of distribution of knowl-
edge and the traditional authority of academia (Eijkman,
2010; O’Neil, 2010). The Internet as a medium generally
redefines the role of authority and expertise (Battles, 2007),
as well as collaborative work practices (Ciesielska &
Petersen, 2013), but Wikipedia, in particular, directly ques-
tions the dominant knowledge elites and their monopoly on
knowledge dissemination (Hartelius, 2010). As Clay Shirky
In fact what Wikipedia presages is a change in the nature of
authority. Prior to Britannica, most encyclopaedias derived
their authority from the author. Britannica came along and
made the relatively radical assertion that you could vest
authority in an institution. You trust Britannica, and then we
in turn go out and get the people to write the articles. What
Wikipedia suggests is that you can vest authority in a visible
process. As long as you can see how Wikipedia’s working,
and can see that the results are acceptable, you can come
over time to trust that. And that is a really profound chal-
lenge to our notions of what it means to be an institution,
what it means to trust something, what it means to have
authority in this society (quoted in: Gauntlett, 2009, p. 42).
Fundamentally, the most important reservation with regard
to Wikipedia is that it is basically not reliable enough. How-
ever, this perception of Wikipedia’s quality may be biased
(Flanagin & Metzger, 2011), and therefore it is worth having
a look at more systematic studies of Wikipedia’s reliability.
Reliability of Wikipedia Entries
Since the very early days of Wikipedia, its content has
been actually found quite credible (Chesney, 2006). As early
as in 2005 it was described as going “head to head” with
Encyclopedia Britannica in terms of the number of errors in
a study published by Nature (Giles, 2005). Quite obviously,
it is also much better referenced (Rivington, 2007).
It is worth noting that with over 4 million entries, any
reliability studies have to be based on evaluating a tiny frac-
tion of Wikipedia, typically in a chosen specialized topic.
For instance, information about mental health on Wikipedia
seems to be of high quality (as compared to Encyclopedia
Britannica, psychiatry textbooks, and other websites),
although not very readable (Reavley et al., 2012). In general,
some scholars show that Wikipedia has high overall linguis-
tic readability (Yasseri & Kert
esz, 2012), whereas according
others it is not so good (Lucassen, Dijkstra, & Schraagen,
The study of references provides another important axis
for the evaluation of reliability, because, following one of its
central content policies, many Wikipedia entries list cita-
tions and references to previous publications. Recent studies
show that there has been an increasing trend in Wikipedia to
include references to standard scientific journals, and that
the citation frequency of those journals is very similar to the
patterns in the scientific literature (Nielsen, 2007). It has
also been found that a journal’s academic status (understood
as its impact factor) is the most important predictor of its
appearance in Wikipedia references (Teplitskiy, Lu, &
There is also some evidence that Wikipedia coverage of
scientific topics with potential social effects like global
warming or climate change tend to reflect the hegemonic
scientific consensus (its anthropogenic origin) rather than
denialist positions (Esteves & Cukierman, 2012). Our own
ongoing research on socially controversial scientific topics
in the Spanish
and Polish Wikipedia supports that view.
Actual Usage of Wikipedia by Scholars
It is worth observing that the perception of Wikipedia’s
quality has improved over time, particularly among academ-
ics (Shachaf, 2009; Soules, 2015). There already are scholars
who openly and clearly support it (Bateman & Logan, 2010;
Heilman et al., 2011), and there already are institutional initia-
tives encouraging professors to contribute to Wikipedia. The
Public Policy Initiative, for instance, was a pilot project
launched by the Wikimedia Foundation in 2010-11 in order
to involve professors at public policy programs in US univer-
sities, in the design of assignments to make students improve
related articles in the English Wikimedia. This project
inspired the creation of the Wikipedia Education Program
that has in recent years established different partnerships with
universities, scientific societies, and cultural institutions
across the world, with similar aims. Notably, in 2011 Presi-
dent Erik Olin Wright of the American Sociological Associa-
tion called for improvement of sociological articles on
and a similar call was issued by the American
; the Association for Psychological
Science mobilized more than 3,300 scholars and students to
edit Wikipedia’s psychological topics,
etc. More and more
academics also introduce Wikipedia editing as a regular
teaching tool (Konieczny, 2012). They also reach out and suc-
cessfully conduct research projects, including experimental
ones (see e.g, Algan, Benkler, Morell, & Hergueux, 2013).
In a recent study based on a large survey given to all
teaching staff at two Spanish universities (with 913 valid
responses on a questionnaire with 50 questions), Aibar et al.
(2015) show that the overall quality of Wikipedia articles is
rather positively valued by most faculty members of two
large Spanish universities. Most of them declare to be fre-
quent users of Wikipedia, particularly for personal and pro-
fessional matters not in their field of expertise. Though few
of them use Wikipedia for teaching purposes, those in
STEM fields do it more than their colleagues in social scien-
ces and humanities. Nevertheless, private instances of use
are not matched by public uses (i.e., those that require some
1774 JOURNAL OF THE ASSOCIATION FOR INFORMATION SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY—July 2016
sort of publicly stated commitment, like recommending it to
other people). Most faculty think Wikipedia is not well
regarded by their colleagues as a respectable source of infor-
mation. But because colleagues act as a strong role model in
academic life, a negative feedback loop is created: because
peers do not talk much about it, most faculty members tend
to think their colleagues do not use it because they find it
inappropriate or unreliable. This process prevents them from
publicly exposing their own positive view, in spite of being
regular users. A basic tension between scientific culture and
peer production could be hypothesized as an explanation of
this phenomenon, though it is eventually modulated by the
particular subcultures of more specific scientific disciplines.
Possible Directions for Peaceful Coexistence
Wikipedia can stimulate egalitarian knowledge sharing
(Cammaerts, 2008; Hansen, Berente, & Lyytinen, 2009;
Jemielniak, 2015). But there are many other good reasons to
introduce Wikipedia into academia. First of all, Wikipedia
has the readership most of us can only dream of. Contribut-
ing to Wikipedia helps in popularizing our fields and
research, all to the benefit of the wider society.
In fact, it can be said that Wikipedia has become the
main platform for the public communication of science.
Recent studies on communication and public perception of
science agree that the Internet has become, for most people,
the main source of scientific information (Brossard &
Scheufele, 2013). In recent years the Internet has surpassed
traditional media in this regard: newspapers, radio, and tele-
vision. According to a study by the National Science Foun-
dation (USA) more than 60% of citizens seeking scientific
information on specific topics, turn first to the Internet
whereas only 12% are still using the online versions of tradi-
tional media–newspapers or magazines (National Science
Board, 2012). Data from the Spanish Survey on the Social
Perception of Science (FECYT, 2012) show that the Inter-
net is also the main source of scientific information for
the Spanish public. When asked about the type of Internet
resources used for scientific information, 21.7% say they
use Wikipedia as their main source. Only blogs and social
a large variety of instances, Wikipedia can actually be
considered the most consulted singular source and, there-
fore, the most important channel for the public communi-
cation of science nowadays.
Moreover, there are also good practical reasons to use
Wikipedia in the classroom. Assigning encyclopedia article
development as a graded task not only makes the professor’s
life easier (a lot of evaluation will be done by the commu-
nity, plagiarism will be spotted, etc.), but also is a truly aca-
demic exercise. After all, writing a Wikipedia article
requires reviewing academic sources, synthesizing knowl-
edge, using proper references, and writing clearly. When
one also takes into account that students are more motivated
to write an article for a wide public, rather than an essay that
will go to the shredder after grading, it is difficult to under-
stand why still so few of us choose this path. Finally, there
is also an ethical argument to be made: because the profes-
sors and students are in the top 1% of the privileged in terms
of access to knowledge and education, it seems to be a good
deed to help those who are less fortunate by developing free
knowledge reservoirs, especially if it is done at zero cost.
For the good or for the bad, Wikipedia will stay and will
most likely serve as the main source of knowledge—includ-
ing scientific knowledge—for the generations to come. If we
do not start contributing to Wikipedia, as well as using it in
classrooms, this train is going to leave without us. It is good
for students, it is good for the society, and it is good for us—
both because it helps our ideas reach a wider audience, and
because it saves us time in class assignments. Thus, we would
like to end this piece with a strong appeal to fellow professors
to start openly and actively collaborating with Wikipedia.
Writing this article on Dariusz Jemielniak’s part was pos-
sible thanks to a part of a research grant from the Polish
National Science Center (no. UMO-2012/05/E/HS4/01498)
and on Eduard Aibar’s part thanks to the FECYT research
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