Wikipedia’s Editing Process Is Still a Mystery to Students

Although many students understand that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, some remain blissfully unaware of how articles in the encyclopedia are created and revised, a study has found.

“I was surprised that anyone who used Wikipedia didn’t know how it was edited,” says Ericka Menchen-Trevino, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University who is lead author of the report, “Young Adults’ Credibility Assessment of Wikipedia.” It appears in the February issue of the journal Information, Communication & Society.

The study, which asked students to find information or complete an open-ended task, was not originally focused on Wikipedia, but the data about the site “emerged organically,” says Eszter Hargittai, an associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern, who is a co-author of the study.

Ms. Menchen-Trevino says she looked at Wikipedia-specific data after a conversation with a study participant who said, “I don’t know if a normal person like me is allowed to edit” Wikipedia entries. The student thought that “people are hired, and they edit—like, scholars, people that were expert in the technology or in the issue.”

The study also found that students learned what they did know about Wikipedia from professors and peers rather than from information available on the site itself, says Ms. Hargittai.

Of the 210 participants in the study, “none of the people looked at the history or discussion page,” she adds. Those sections specify who wrote each part of an article and when it was added.

Ms. Menchen-Trevino found it surprising that members of the “digital native” generation—defined by Wikipedia itself as “a young person, who … through interacting with digital technology from an early age, has a greater understanding of its concepts”—remain unaware of the way in which the online encyclopedia functions.

“People need to update their heuristics,” she says.

Wikipedia remains a valuable resource for students, she acknowledges, but they need to be aware of who is editing content and of the conversations surrounding certain topics, especially those that may be controversial or are ever-changing.

Of the students in the study, 77 percent had used Wikipedia at some point in their research, 47 percent went through a search engine to reach Wikipedia, 19 percent went to the site directly, and 36 percent used both direct access and a search engine to reach the site.

Many students increasingly “approach Wikipedia as a search engine,” says Ms. Hargittai.

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