How does Wikipedia keep the content neutral?

Wikipedia - Open content in the collaborative paradigm - a challenge also for specialist information

A shorter version of this article was published in “Research & Teaching” 10/2005, 546-548.

At the beginning of August 2005 there was, so to speak, accolade for Wikipedia in Germany. The German Library, as the national archive library, certainly the most serious thing there is in the field of securing published information, announced that it had entered into an agreement with Wikipedia. Then the personal articles from - that is currently (as of August 2005) a good 30,000 of the approx. 280,000 German-language articles (the English-language version has over 600,000 articles) - a reference is added to the corresponding entry in German Library maintained personal name file (PND) leads. All works published and archived by or about this person since 1913 are displayed (provided the Deutsche Bibliothek has noted them in its PND).

"Around the Globe" with many languages: World Knowledge Bank Wikipedia

What is Wikipedia

Wikipedia is an electronic encyclopedia developed and used on the Internet in web / hypertext technology, and it claims to be the largest encyclopedia that has ever existed, targeting the entire knowledge of the world. Whatever is written and expressed critically or even derogatory about Wikipedia (see below), Wikipedia is always a success story on the Internet, comparable in its broad impact, perhaps only with the search engine Google or the online auction house eBay or - in the same open paradigm - with the open / free source operating system Linux or earlier the music exchange platform Napster and its P2P successors, in German perhaps with the German-English dictionary LEO, an online service from the IT department of the Technical University of Munich.

The quantitative success story

The numbers speak for themselves: Since January 15, 2001, when the address went online, around 1.5 million articles have been created in over 130 languages. In the German part alone, the second largest Wikipedia, between 10,000 and 15,000 articles are edited, i.e. either newly posted or modified, every day. As far as usage is concerned, according to the author's perhaps a little too radical assessment, almost no student work is being done without Wikipedia (referenced or not) being consulted. Wikipedia is a Wikimania (by the way, this was the name of the last Wikipedia conference held in Frankfurt at the beginning of August 2005). In Germany, the mania is male, according to the online survey from spring 2005 to 88%. But, as with many previous Internet applications, that should change in the medium term.

The provocation

Wikipedia is a provocation for any commercial publisher. Robert McHenry, formerly Editor in Chief the Encyclopædia Britannica, speaks of a "faith-based encyclopedia" [Fn2], which is based on the assumption of a "quasi-Darwinian" evolution for the better and better. In reality, the collaborative principle and thus the participation in the creation process of articles, which is open to everyone, inevitably leads to mediocrity. Not excellency then prevail, but rather mediocracy.

But also from the point of view of traditional scientific quality control, the collaborative and open wiki process is generally considered to be “impossible”. Unlike in the Open access- Approach to scientific publication, where the Peer review-Principle is immovable, quality assurance via experts (peers) is rejected as control, regulation or even censorship at Wikipedia. The public, the online community of Wikipedia, should decide what quality will prevail over the long term.

Reviewing - also a challenge in specialist information

This naturally addresses a central problem of making information public. No wonder that this is where the criticism of Wikipedia from experts begins. Because of the (deliberate) lack of direct quality control, it is understandable that Wikipedia is often criticized for the fact that its information is not reliable. Wikipedia reacted to this with the means at its disposal, namely with an article "Wikipedia: Non-Wikipedia disclaimers". From the corresponding "disclaimers" from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN and the Oxford English Dictionary, among others, it is proven that it is actually a principle of electronic media services that the providers do not guarantee correctness the conveyed information.

At CNN interactive, users must declare that they will not make any claims to CNN: "... nor do they make any warranty as to the results that may be obtained from use of CNN interactive, or as to the accuracy, reliability or content of any information, service, or merchandise provided through CNN interactive ”. And even "Oxford University Press makes no warranties or representations of any kind concerning the accuracy or suitability of the information contained on this web site for any purpose."

Science, too, is increasingly uncertain whether the published information is true or just correct, even if published articles are subjected to the classic review process. So the reasons presented by John PA Ioannidis in a well-noticed article in PloS Medicine (Vol 2, No. 8, August 2005) make the fear appear very real, “that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims ”. [Fn3]

Excursus: alternatives to classic reviewing

Not least because of this, scientific journals are increasingly using other forms of quality control than the classic one Peer reviewing experimented. Here are just a few observations (not a representative analysis): The magazine Journal of Interactive Media in Education (JIME) allows the “private” review process, in which the reviewer's assessment is initially only made known to the author (s), to be followed by an open peer review process (but only if the first process leads to a In principle, this has led to a positive result), in which the entire professional public can participate in the discussion / "co-review". The magazine Atmospheric Chemistry and Physic calls this second process "Interactive Discussion". This is also how e.g. Behavioral and Brain Scienceswhere the second stage of the so-called Peer Commentary can also be activated when the classic Peer reviewing gave the green light, so to speak. Other magazines turn this around, so first let the public position themselves, and then the selected experts make the final decision.Reviewer. The British Medical Journal had experimented for a while, relying on the expertReviewing to do without: Readers were invited to comment on articles submitted. These comments are then intended to replace the Reviewing be. If the public comments were mostly positive, then that was accepted as a basis for formal publication.

Harnad summarized this discussion in his famous article “The Invisible Hand of Peer Review” from 2000 into the alternatives “Expert Opinion or Opinion Poll?” And “Peer Commentary vs. Peer Review” [Fn4]. Harnad himself wanted to differentiate in this article at least between an “unrefereed preprint sector” and an (unreliable) “refereed, published, reprint sector” - a variant that Larry Sanger, one of the fathers of Wikipedia, also favored. We'll come back to that. After this digression on quality control, let's go back to the Wiki principle or Wikipedia.

The methodological background - the wiki principle

Wikipedia is methodically based on the wiki principle, for the software implementation of which Ward Cunningham is given credit for his original wiki version published in 1995. A wiki (“wiki wiki” is the Hawaiian term for “fast”) should enable everyone to make entries for websites quickly and easily and to have them modified quickly and easily by others, with version control being the Changes can be kept transparent and thus in principle reversible. There are thousands, if not millions, of wikis. The wiki of the Green Party recently became publicly known in the political field, giving the Greens base the opportunity to take part in a sub-area (information society) of the program for the 2005 Bundestag election. Wikipedia is certainly the world's largest wiki application with many software extensions, all of which are based on voluntary and unpaid work.

The founder

Jimbo Wales [Fn5] is considered the founder of Wikipedia, although the impetus for the application of the wiki principle to the predecessor system Nupedia and thus for the technical realization and independence of what was then known as Wikipedia was largely due to Larry Sanger. Wales had the crucial capital to start operations - it is believed to have contributed $ 500,000 from its own funds. His schedule now resembles that of the former Foreign Minister Genscher. Between the beginning of August and the beginning of December 2005 there are 16 lecture tours around the world on Wikipedia.

The principle

Wikipedia has no editor and no editorial team. Anyone who feels competent for a subject can enter it into Wikipedia without having to have extensive web experience. The writing becomes immediately public without further control. Wikipedia articles are written without specifications - unless one sees the general Wikipedia principle as a requirement that all articles should be written from a neutral perspective, i.e. one that takes all views and above all facts into account (Neutral Point Of View Policy - NPOVP). Each reader decides whether he should change what he is reading if he thinks the current status is wrong or could be improved / expanded. In extreme cases, he can even delete the post. However, the old versions remain accessible so that the old state can be restored if someone wants to. This can lead to exhausting editing wars with stubborn opponents (edit wars) of mutual deletion and renewal. The current version of the entry applies at all times. Wikipedia is an essentially open encyclopedia.

The use of Wikipedia is free (and therefore also with the Open accessApproach compliant). Anyone can use any article for whatever they want, if the condition of referencing is met and if it is recognized that the new forms are freely accessible and usable again for everyone. The model here was of course the free licenses from the Free software-Move.

Operating model - not a business model

Wikipedia has been formally supported by the Wikipedia Foundation organized in Florida. Jimmy Wales is their president and Chairman of the Board. For Germany there is the non-profit association "Wikimedia Germany - Society for the Promotion of Free Knowledge e.V." Wikipedia is completely dependent on donations. Wikipedia currently requires around $ 200,000 per quarter to operate (and has so far been able to collect that effortlessly), of which $ 140,000 is for hosting alone. Personnel costs are less than 10%: $ 4,000 per month for the Chief Technical Officer, $ 500 for a hardware wizard and about $ 1700 for one Executive Assistant (of course no expense for authors' fees). The rest for travel and office supplies. That's it. There is no other income, not even hidden. All pages are free of advertising.

If you will, Wikipedia does not have a business model, unlike Google, for example. There, too, it is free to use for everyone, but Google makes billions in sales and profits from the sale of information that is needed for advertising. Wikipedia is the counter-model to the commercial primacy of knowledge and information, and that is the political explosive power of the Wiki encyclopedia.

Wikipedia - Enlightenment revisited?

Wikis see themselves as legitimate successors of the French encyclopedia and the Enlightenment in general:

"The Encyclopedia of the French philosophers was not just a knowledge base project, but it was also a political project designed to propagate the ideas of the Enlightenement and to establish the reign of" Reason "as the basis of modern public debate." (Jean-Baptiste Soufron) [Fn6]

Accordingly, the encyclopedic political goal of Wikipedia is: "freedom over content and information" [Fn7]. Knowledge is not neutral or free of interests, but has the pragmatic power of change. Those who have access to existing knowledge can act in a self-determined manner and free themselves from outside-determined power and control. As, according to Hegel, civil society has developed as a society of freedom for a few, for many and ultimately for everyone, the goal of the information society must be the free disposal of knowledge and information for everyone.

This is the political substructure of Wikipedia, so to speak. Without a doubt, Wikipedia is along with the Free softwareMovement is the largest international and perhaps also the most exciting experiment for the collaborative handling of the generation of knowledge and information and the free (not only uncensored, but actually also free) use of information made public.

Success and motivation

The interim result is amazing enough. 5 years ago it was hard to imagine that an obviously anarchist concept without quality control, i.e. without editorial or Peer review- Review of the content and a consistently collaborative approach, which in principle gives everyone the possibility of destructive destruction or manipulation of content, as well as a global "company" that hardly needs management structures or intensive capital investment, lead to results and thus to success can be.

But what is the success?

In practice, Wikipedia is at least a successful protest against the exclusive validity of the homo-oeconomicus-Arguments. Obviously, it is attractive enough for many thousands of wikis to make their knowledge (often it is only insights into the knowledge of others) freely available to others without any monetary recognition. In contrast to the free software model, they cannot expect their expertise documented in Wikipedia to be reflected in professional and thus often enough also in monetary recognition. Apparently, reputational recognition is enough of an incentive. The Wikipedia founder considers the fun of wikis to be the decisive factor for success. Wiki “work” is like doing sport in one's free time. Active wiki workers, as Würzburg psychologists found out in a survey [Fn8], work an average of two hours a day in their free time. They are motivated by the interest in improving the quality of Wikipedia and the conviction that information should be free as well as the joy of writing.

The Wikipedia articles themselves are not identified by name. Under the heading “Versions / Authors” or “History”, however, all contributors (they are called “users”, not authors, are listed, starting with the person who created the article first - but often enough only with the person himself chosen anonymous name.

Quality assurance in a collaboratively organized online community

It is astonishing that the openness of the initially uncontrolled editing hardly leads to obvious abuse (nonsense or vandalism). Why is that?
Wikipedia is not only a system for producing encyclopedic knowledge, but also a self-organizing one Online community. Marco Kalz pointed out in his contribution for the Wikimania conference (08/2005 in Frankfurt) to this double aspect that

“Every article in Wikipedia (...) is not only the result of a negotiation process about the neutral presentation of knowledge on a certain topic, but also the result of a negotiation process about the rules and resources that are used in Wikipedia : The members of Wikipedia (and also the anonymous contributors) are constantly involved in a process of self-organization of these rules and resources, which institutionalize themselves over time ”. [Fn9]

Like any Online community Wikipedia has also developed a system of rules and forms of behavior [Fn10]: The focus is on the principle of neutrality and respect for all contributors who make their contributions from very different cultural backgrounds.

Wikipedia makes all content available for open use, but strictly observes copyrights. Wrongly submitted contributions, e.g. also images that are not expressly declared in the public domain, will be removed - if recognized. Whether the Creative Commons- Offering and enforcing licenses is on after recent attacks Creative Commons by Richard Stallman, the founder and boss of the Free Software Foundation, uncertain.

Conflict resolution

There is a de-escalation strategy for resolving conflicts, especially with different positions in articles: First, the opponents are acted on, in a so-called dispute resolution process to enter. If this does not succeed, a neutral mediator can be called in. If the conflicting behavior continues anyway, the administrators can insist that the article be kept for a while (cool down period) is frozen, so to speak, so it can no longer be edited. In any case, the principle applies that you shouldn't edit a single Wikipedia page more than three times a day.

If conflicts persist, an assessment (survey), which is intended to illuminate all facets of the controversy and the result of which is then assigned in the article. If all of this is of no use, the Wikipedia Arbitration Panel (arbitration) must be switched on. This last authority over serious cases of conflict (e.g. stubborn edit wars) Until recently, Jimmy Wales alone was allowed to decide. This work has been doing a so-called since 2004 Arbitration Committeewhose members are named or elected on the basis of their trustworthiness. [Fn11]

Development perspective

The success of Wikipedia can also be explained by its easy-to-use user interface. Many free software developers are in the process of further improving the quality of the system. There is the introduction of typed, i.e. semantically specified links after the Semantic WebApproach. Ontologies for the semantic description of the Wikipedia content are being developed. The still weak retrieval component is over Data mining-Techniques improved. The integration of the various, previously independent language-dependent Wikipedia versions (more than a hundred) via automatic translation is currently the greatest challenge in order to meet the requirements of the universal encyclopedia.


It is uncertain where the continued explosive growth of Wikipedia will lead. The wiki (pedia) principle is expanding. In addition to and in exchange with the “neutral” Wikipedia, articles by distinguished individuals (intellectuals, academics) with their own positions are expressly desired in Wikinfo. Wikinfo It also sees itself as a lexicon, which Wikipedia definitely does not want to be as an encyclopedia. WikiSource collects original articles by authors who have already been published, translations of texts, historical documents, bibliographies by Wikipedia authors, too Source code of programs, .... Wikibooks as textbooks will emerge ...

The competition

Presumably, the classic dictionary and encyclopedia information based on expert knowledge and editorial support will not become obsolete. Wikipedia does not compete with knowledge products in the classical scientific paradigm. In accordance with the principle of neutrality, Wikipedia (so far) does not offer any space for original research. There are hundreds of (free and commercial) online dictionaries and encyclopedias on the Internet, but publishers interested in commercial exploitation will have to come up with a lot, at least in the medium term, so that their products, such as Encarta, Brockhaus, Encyclopaedia Britannica or the many Specialist encyclopedias (such as those of Elsevier Verlag) can continue to be used or so that users will be willing to continue to pay for them.

Wikipedia in science - hidden reluctance

So far there is still a willingness on the market to pay for information with well-rehearsed quality assurance by recognized experts and with editorial security. In science, behavior, information without a seal of approval and without established quality control (Peer review) to be trusted as a risk factor. Nice Pre-prints little more than a provisional informational value is conceded. To date, a reference to a Wikipedia article has hardly been accepted in scientific publications. So far, a Wikipedia publication will hardly be found on the publication lists for applications. Many (established) scientists only contribute to Wikipedia under an anonymous name. That may change. The assumption that Wikipedia only attracts hobbyists, generalists or students is no longer true. A Wikipedia article about yourself is no longer shamefully hidden.

Wikipedia in Education - Information Literacy Needs

Trying to oppose a reference to Wikipedia articles for student term papers or theses is like fighting windmills. Should you? Of course not. But we will work on the development of information literacy and create the framework conditions for it. The advancing commercialization of knowledge and information will make it more and more difficult for students in particular to obtain reliable specialist information. Free access and free use are welcome.

"Lack of respect?"

Wikipedia is currently a universal encyclopedia for everyday use of knowledge, not a substitute for specialist knowledge. Larry Sanger, who led Wikipedia, on Peer review-Principles-based, but hardly more than a few articles had co-founded online Nupedia, tried to combine the classic quality assurance principle with Wikipedia. [Fn12] The particularly good Wikipedia articles should be reviewed by experts afterwards and, in the positive case, fed into Nupedia . I have pointed out that experiments are currently being carried out in the specialist information section of scientific journals.

Sanger hoped that this would gain academic and library recognition and thus the integration of an open, free encyclopedia into specialist communication. It didn't work. The accusation that "Wikipedia lacks the habit or tradition of respect for expertise" [Fn13] was no longer accepted by the Wikipedia community as what it wanted to be, namely elitist - the idea of ​​oneself is too attractive for them -optimizing collaborative production.

Just a start?

Whether specialist knowledge can also be organized using the wiki principle remains an open question. Who can safely predict from a further perspective what influence the collaborative principle and the progressive networking also on the original production of knowledge and thus on the individual understanding of authors, on quality control, on the forms of publication in science and also on the encyclopedic and lexical Will have representation of knowledge? The experiment continues. Maybe Wikipedia is just the beginning.


Rainer Kuhlen is professor of information science at the University of Konstanz and also chairman of the specialist committee "Communication and Information" of the German UNESCO commission, chairman of the Nethics e.V. Association. Homepage: