Professor’s Wikipedia assignment draws criticism from site’s editors

The number of Wikipedia editors has plummeted since 2007.

Wikipedia editors have raised concerns about a University of Toronto psychology professor after he assigned 1,900 students to add content to the free online encyclopedia.

Volunteer editors for the Wikipedia – which has been criticized by educators as an unreliable source for research – took issue with the massive influx of students from Steve Joordens’ introductory psychology course who took to the popular site for a volunteer assignment to add content to Wikipedia pages related to the class’s various topics.

Wikipedia volunteer editors complained that the students were not properly editing the site’s pages using the necessary citations for each tidbit of information added to an entry.

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In a statement released April 7 in the National Post, Joordens – who did not respond to eCampus News’ request for an interview – pointed out that only 33 of 910 articles affected by the class assignment were tagged for issues related to citations and plagiarism.

“I assumed that the current core of editors was extremely large and that the introduction of up to 1,000 new editors would be seen as a positive,” Joordens said in his statement, adding that the level of frustration among some Wikipedia editors was “somewhat ridiculous.” “However, the current core of editors turns out not to be that large, and even if my students were bringing signal along with noise, the noise was just too much to deal with on the scale it was happening.”

Wikipedia editors’ complaints comes after a University of Minnesota study showed a precipitous decline in the number of Wikipedia contributors, from more than 56,000 in 2007 to around 32,000 in 2012. The website’s editorial structure has been a primary factor in the declining number of editors.

“Several changes the Wikipedia community made to manage quality and consistency in the face of a massive growth in participation have ironically crippled the very growth they were designed to manage,” the study said. “Specifically, the restrictiveness of the encyclopedia’s primary quality control mechanism and the algorithmic tools used to reject contributions are implicated as key causes of decreased newcomer retention.”

LiAnna Davis, a communications associate for Wikipedia, said in March 2012 that campus communications officials shouldn’t aggressively monitor and change their university’s Wikipedia page unless the entry has been “vandalized” by another editor, a Wikipedia spokeswoman said during a recent discussion on how educators are using the vast online encyclopedia.

No change should be made, Davis said, until the college employee creates an account that acknowledges he or she works for the campus.

“We would encourage you not to edit anything that you have a bias in,” Davis said during an internet radio webcast, organized by the Association for Social Media & Higher Education (ASMHE), a group based at The George Washington University (GWU). “If you work for the university … that gives you a certain amount of bias about the topic of your university.”

College and university employees who make changes to their institution’s Wikipedia information should leave notes on why that edit was made on the page’s discussion section, Davis said.