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Wikipedia inadvertently causing its own decline in participation

University of Minnesota research finds that changes made by the Wikipedia community to manage quality have crippled the growth they were designed to manage

January 23, 2013

University of Minnesota computer science researchers studying Wikipedia have found that several changes the community made to manage the quality and consistency of submissions to the popular online encyclopedia are causing its decline in contributors.

The study "The Rise and Decline of an Open Collaboration System: How Wikipedia’s Reaction to Popularity Is Causing Its Decline" was recently published online in the journal American Behavioral Scientist and will be printed in a future special issue of the journal.

When Wikipedia’s popularity exploded in 2005, the community of volunteer editors reacted to the massive growth in contributions by creating software to automate the removal of common types of vandalism and added structure to the community’s rules.  

"Open collaboration systems, such as Wikipedia, need to maintain a pool of volunteer contributors to remain relevant," said Aaron Halfaker, the study’s lead author and a computer science Ph.D. student in the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering. "Wikipedia was created through a tremendous number of contributions by millions of contributors. However, recent research has shown that the number of active contributors in Wikipedia has been declining steadily for years and suggests that a sharp decline in the retention of newcomers is the cause."

The group’s research cites the restrictiveness of the encyclopedia’s primary quality control mechanism against contributions made by newcomers and the algorithmic tools commonly used to reject contributions as key causes of the decrease in newcomer retention. The community’s formal mechanisms to create uniform entries are also shown to have fortified its entries against changes—especially when those changes are proposed by newer editors. As a result, Wikipedia is having greater difficulty in retaining new volunteer editors.

"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," Halfaker said.

In addition to Halfaker, other authors of the study include University of Minnesota Professor John Riedl; University of California, Berkeley Professor R.Stuart Geiger; and University of Washington Ph.D. student Jonathan T. Morgan.

To read the full study, visit the American Behavioral Scientist website.

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