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New articles per day on English Wikipedia. Average drop in production is 135/year. (Data from Wikimedia.)
Number of newly registered contributors per month on English WP over its lifetime. Average drop in monthly enrollment is 515/year (Data from Wikimedia.)
Number of English WP contributors making 100+ edits/month by year. Average drop is 93/year. (Data from Wikimedia.)
Number of applicants for administrator privileges on English Wikipedia by year (top). Accepted applications (bottom). (Data from Wikipedia.)

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that is written in every major language by a mostly anonymous user base on a voluntary basis.[1] Its editorial decisions are self-described as governed by consensus,[2] and as exemplifying the "democratization of knowledge".[3] Although anyone can edit articles, and anyone with an account can contribute articles, the project is run by a many-layered oligarchy that serves to maintain order and the operation of the site.[4]

Founded in 2001 and operated by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia went "live" on January 15th of that year[5] and grew exponentially in its first 4 to 5 years, but about 2006-2007 an unexplained change in participation occurred, as shown in the charts at the right.

Wikipedia is the world's largest encyclopedia project. The English-language Wikipedia is the world's largest single wiki and now contains more than 4.2 million individual articles. Among websites with the highest traffic, Wikipedia is ranked sixth by Alexa and fifth by, an increase from seventh that prevailed before June 2011. That ranks Wikipedia ahead of Twitter (number 13, 6), LinkedIn (number 9, 17), and (10, 10). This traffic is assisted by the prominence of Wikipedia listings found on Google and Bing searches, where Wikipedia is the first listing on about one half of one-, two-, and three-word searches.[6] There are questions about this prominence in search engine results.[7]

Wikipedia articles are widely republished by other websites. For example, a Google search for the exact wording of the leading phrase in the article Speed of light turns up roughly twenty thousand to thirty thousand hits (it varies from time to time), including Facebook, YouTube,, and others. Some of these sites contain advertising, for example,, which may raise some eyebrows over profiting from voluntary efforts of Wikipedia contributors.


According to Alexa, Wikipedia's main audience demographic is childless, graduate students age 18-24, accessing Wikipedia from school. A separate assessment is the UNU Merit-Wikimedia Survey that showed an average age of ~26 years with 1/4 less than 18. Overall, 1/4 were women and 3/4 men, and among those using WP about 9% classified themselves as "regular contributors".[8]

In February 2011, Sue Gardner, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation (2007-2014), set out several possible reasons for the female participation rate of 13% found in the 2009-2010 survey, including lack of free time, conflict aversion, apparent misogyny among existing contributors, and problems with the site's user interface.[9] That year, Gardner announced a goal of increasing the number of female contributors to 25% by 2015.[10] By August 2013, Gardner had concluded that this could not be achieved, stating, "I didn't solve it. We didn't solve it. The Wikimedia Foundation didn't solve it. The solution won't come from the Wikimedia Foundation."[11]

Rate of growth

As the four figures indicate, the period of rapid growth for WP is over, with the number of new articles, of new accounts and of very active contributors (making 100 or more edits a month) all in decline, and the number of Wikipedians interested in Administrator privileges falling rapidly. It is unclear just what happened in 2006-2007 to cause the slowdown in activity. A Wikimedia statistical report has posed this question,[12] and suggested there may be a connection between the rapid drop in the percentage of Wikipedians making at least one edit a year after joining, and the rapid upsurge in very active editors that occurred in the same 2006-2007 time frame. One may conjecture this transition occurred when the climate of WP encouraging active participation changed to something else.

A 2013 article pointed to the mechanisms Wikipedia employs to prevent malicious editing as a factor in the slowdown of growth. Specifically, the increasing use of automated quality-control software ("bots") has created an impersonal experience for many new contributors, discouraging them from further participation. The article also suggests possible bias against newcomers in interpreting long-standing rules, and a rise in the proportion of edits from good-quality or good-faith newcomers being rejected.[13]


An accidental spin-off of Nupedia, a now-defunct online encyclopedia written by experts, Wikipedia was started by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger in January 2001 as a multilingual, Web-based, free content encyclopedia that anyone with access to one of its project websites can edit. Sanger left the project March 1, 2002, when funding ran dry, and permanently distanced himself from it toward the end of 2002.

Changes made to Wikipedia articles undergo no formal peer review and are immediately viewable on the World Wide Web. Under this deliberately radical open model, Wikipedia's growth has been exponential. Within only a month, Wikipedia had 600 articles, and a year later in January 2002, 20,000. On November 20, 2004, the English Wikipedia alone reached 400,000 articles, and by March 1, 2006, that number had reached 1 million. By 2010 more than 3,000,000 articles had been created on the English Wikipedia alone.


Wikipedia's undergirding philosophy is that most of its contributors are well-meaning, and that unmoderated collaboration among them will gradually improve the encyclopedia such that it is both reliable and reputable.[14]

Main features

Wikipedia refers to two of its pivotal features in its slogan, "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit." Indeed, virtually any person on the Internet may create or edit a Wikipedia article, thanks to the use of wiki software. Contributors may edit Wikipedia anonymously or register user accounts. As of August 2009, Wikipedia has more than 10 million registered users,[15] though much of the content that users see is produced by a relatively small group of people: perhaps about 4,200 users, or 0.1%. These users have been responsible for about 44% of regularly-read content, with this domination increasing, according to one 2007 research estimate based on words read.[16]

The project wrote its own wiki software called MediaWiki, the software package on which Wikipedia runs, which makes it a dynamic wiki, capable of producing its contents through the interactions of its users. It is written in PHP and released under the GPL, permitting anyone to copy it and to modify it freely.

MediaWiki keeps fastidious track of its participants' editing and much of its internal activities. All edits are tracked and the editing history for every Wikipedia page is available.[17] As a result, when anonymous (or registered) users make inappropriate revisions to an encyclopedia article (i.e., Wikipedia "vandalism"), Wikipedia volunteers can readily restore the prior version. This transparency also enables visitors to examine both the history of substantive articles and the portion of deliberations of Wikipedia's policy and organizational decisions that are effectuated through wiki webpages. Some of the public record may be deleted permanently if it is deemed an embarrassment to some participants.

A more or less stable group of Wikipedia users judges certain articles to be important enough and well-written enough to be considered featured articles. On 24 April 2008, there were 2,024 "Featured Articles" out of 2,346,120 articles on the English Wikipedia.[18] In addition, various groups of users collaborate within topical "projects" to rate the quality of articles and upgrade weaker articles.

Wikipedia may be said to be free insofar as its articles provide free and open access to all content, thereby creating public domain products. All contributions of text are licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL).

While anyone may contribute anonymously, anonymous contributors may be partially identified by the IP address from which they contributed.

Wikipedia articles include both knowledge typical of printed encyclopedias as well as relatively recondite subjects, such as information on small towns, minor sports figures and celebrities, and popular culture. For example, many of the Pokémon characters have individual articles.

Editing experience

Contributors primarily add to Wikipedia using the MediaWiki software, in which the text of a page is presented in an editing window which supports special tags that alter the appearance of the page in various ways. This ranges from simple changes, such as striking through text by placing <s> and </s> around it, to complex embedded templates that draw other text or media from elsewhere on the site and which can be instantly updated. By default, users cannot edit text as a reader of the article would see it. To address this, in 2013 the WikiMedia Foundation launched the "Visual Editor",[19] which allows users to edit articles more simply. However, the software was rejected by the community as the default editing mechanism, is unavailable to unregistered contributors, and must be switched on from the user's 'Preferences' within their account. Contributors have questioned how effective Visual Editor has been so far in attracting new users, given its limitations, and suggested that the decline in editors is not closely related to ease of editing in any case.[20]


This section describes the formalities of Wikipedia administration, as described in various documents on Wikipedia. This discussion is based entirely upon documentation from the English language version of Wikipedia. Its applicability to other language versions has not been examined.


The contributors or editors of Wikipedia participate subject to a number of policies and guidelines governing behavior and content. These rules are supervised by various authorities: Jimmy Wales, nominally in a position of ultimate authority (although he has deferred in most instances to the leadership of Wikipedia[21][22]), the ~34[23] present Bureaucrats or Crats, the ~740[24] active Administrators or Admins, and another group called the Arbitration Committee or ArbCom with 15-18 members or Arbs, depending upon the rules adopted each year. There were 18 Arbitrators in early 2012, with 13 identified as active, all being administrators.[25] The Wikimedia Foundation or its designated agents also have authority to impose bans against IP addresses for pages, topics, or the entire site.[26] The Arbitration Committee "has no jurisdiction over official actions of the Wikimedia Foundation or its staff".[27]

An up-to-date count of WP participants by category is maintained at Wikipedians. A list of users by user name and status is supplied by Special%3AListUsers&username=Aaaaaaa&group=&limit=50 search box.


Bureaucrats or Crats are a category introduced in 2004, and have only a few limited activities. Among these, they may remove Administrators and Bureaucrats if so instructed by the Arbitration Committee, and appoint Administrators and Bureaucrats following a selection procedure. Selection follows a discussion process, Bureaucrats decide what criteria constitute a "consensus" upon appointment, at the end of which a Bureaucrat reviews the situation to see whether there is a "consensus". For appointment of Bureaucrats, consensus must exceed ~85%, but final judgment is one of Bureaucrat discretion.[28] As a result, Bureaucrats have almost complete control over appointment of new Bureaucrats. The number of newly appointed Bureaucrats has steadily declined over the years, with only two successful candidacies in 2011. Bureaucrats serve indefinitely.


The activities of Administrators or Admins are described in a how-to guide instructing Administrators on the use of their powers. One authority is the ability to block users, IP addresses or IP address ranges to enforce bans or to prevent disruption of the project.[29] Blocks by an Administrator "must supply a clear and specific block reason that indicates why a user was blocked."[30] Although a reason for a block must be given, there is no formal requirement for advance notice. A number of templates for common explanations are available.

There is a distinction between a ban and a block. One difference is that, unless imposed directly by Jimmy Wales, the Wikimedia Foundation or ArbCom, a ban requires "consensus",[31] while a block can be imposed by a single Administrator and prevents editing to some degree, large or small.[32] Another difference is that a ban is a formal warning outlining restrictions under which a contributor may edit without sanction but, unlike a block, does not impose such restrictions directly. Enforcement occurs should it happen that an individual Administrator judges the ban has been violated. Upon that conclusion, without further consultation, that Administrator can impose sanctions suggested in the ban to enforce that ban.[31] If such action results in a block, "Unblocking will almost never be acceptable when the block is explicitly enforcing an active Arbitration remedy and there is not ArbCom authorization or 'a clear, substantial, and active consensus of uninvolved editors at a community discussion noticeboard (such as Wikipedia:Administrators' noticeboard or Wikipedia:Administrators' noticeboard/Incidents)'"[33]

Another activity of Administrators is the granting of permissions to contributors to augment their editing capabilities.

The nomination and selection of Administrators is supervised by Bureaucrats, who decide whether, in their opinion, a candidate has garnered sufficient support in the discussion of a candidacy, a process like that for appointing Bureaucrats. A "consensus" exceeding ~70% is required, but the judgement of Bureaucrats is the deciding factor. A list of unsuccessful requests shows the number of refusals peaked at 543 in 2006 with 353 acceptances, and has steadily declined since as the number of applicants has dropped off, with only 155 refusals and 75 acceptances in 2010, and 88 refusals and 52 acceptances as of 2011 (about a 3.4% increase in membership).

Administrators serve indefinitely, but can be disbarred by Bureaucrats if the Arbitration Committee formally requests it.[34] "Throughout the history of the project, there has been a convention that adminship may be removed only in cases of clear abuse."[35] A possible exception to the "clear abuse" criterion is the Restriction on arbitration enforcement activity, which appropriates to the Arbitration Committee the power to limit an Administrator's activities whenever the Arbitration Committee deems that Administrator "consistently make[s] questionable enforcement administrative actions." and to decommission the Administrator if they override another Administrator's actions without the Arbitration Committee's written authorization or "clear, substantial, and active consensus of uninvolved editors".[36]

As of 2009 there had been 47 removals during the history of WP, and following 2009 no public record has been maintained of these actions.[37] Of the approximately 1,526 Administrators empowered, 207 (or 13.5%) have declared themselves open to recall under circumstances devised by themselves.[38][39]

There is a provision for possible removal of inactive Administrators, but "if the user returns to Wikipedia, they may be resysopped by a bureaucrat without further discussion".[40]

Although attempts have been made to implement a community-based removal of Administrators.[41] See also these discussions: Admin Recall and Five Problems with a Single Solution none ever has been agreed upon.

Arbitration Committee

Members of the Arbitration Committee (referred to as ArbCom), or Arbs, act in concert or in sub-groups to enforce an end to disputes, and can intervene in matters that arise outside of formal appeals for arbitration cases.[42] Usually ArbCom introduces sanctions as part of formal appeals, or of so-called "clarification" or "amendment" proceedings.[43] Enforcement may directly block a user's IP address, or spell out circumstances where blocks will be imposed, enforceable by individual Administrators using their sole discretion. Though disputes commonly arise over content, the Arbitration Committee explicitly excludes all content issues from their deliberations and focuses upon disciplinary actions.[44] A notable exception is the topic ban, the enforcement of which requires content decisions.

The Arbitration Committee can request Bureaucrats to exercise de-Adminship under the circumstances described under Administrators. ArbCom also has authority to grant special privileges; for example, the Arbitration Committee gives specific users the ability to remove some types of edits from the revision history, for example, material considered defamatory.[45]

Arbitrators are elected annually in one-year or overlapping two-year terms, and also can be appointed directly by Wales or the Wikimedia Foundation. The election rules are debated each year. Although nomination is subject only to rather broad criteria, in practice only Administrators have succeeded in being selected as Arbitrators.[46]

Wikimedia Foundation

Wikipedia is one of a dozen projects of Wikimedia, an organization owned and operated by the Wikimedia Foundation. Among the functionaries of Wikimedia are the Stewards[47] of the Wikimedia wikis who have complete access to the wiki interface on all Wikimedia wikis, including the ability to change any and all user rights and groups; and the SysOps of the Wikimedia Meta-Wiki,[48] who manage and maintain the Wikimedia Foundation servers. The present and past panels of Stewards are listed here, and some further information on their selection is provided here.

The tools used by the Stewards in exercising control over the wikis of Wikimedia are described in a handbook.[49] Some indication of the control given to Stewards and System Administrators can be found on the Wikimedia web pages.[50]

The overall control is by the ten-member Wikimedia Board of Trustees, one of whom is Jimmy Wales. The present membership is found here.

Editing environment

This discussion is based entirely upon documentation from the English language version of Wikipedia. Its applicability to other language versions has not been examined.

Wikipedia articles can be edited anonymously by anyone, and contributed by anyone with an account (and anyone can create an anonymous account). A variety of policies, more specific guidelines, and less established essays are intended to "describe its principles and best-known practices", but are not "hard-and-fast rules". In fact, one of the policies of Wikipedia is Ignore all rules, which says: "If a rule prevents you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore it." That may sound liberating, but it is a freedom most safely exercised by Administrators. There is also a Be bold policy that says "Just do it", but adds "...but please be careful".

It is encouraged that nontrivial changes in content of articles be discussed on the article Talk page to iron out wrinkles without huge numbers of changes back and forth on the Main page. Some behavioral rules are intended to protect the Main page, the most obvious one being the three-revert rule that blocks contributors that engage in edit warring. Discussion of content is guided in part by the policies "What Wikipedia is not" and the Five "pillars" of Wikipedia. Cautions to control the temperature on Talk pages are provided: such as No personal attacks, WP is not about winning, Polling is not a substitute for discussion, and so forth. The general concepts of Talk page politeness are subsumed under Wikiquette. Content disputes sometimes can be resolved by formal resolution including mediation. The main dispute resolution page does not make clear the structure of content dispute resolution, and even leading figures often seem unclear on the subject. However, the basic principle is to try to reach "consensus". In cases where this fails, policy specifies that article content should default to the status quo ante bellum.

Although wise, these admonitions and processes do not always suffice, and content issues become mixed up with conduct issues. Talk pages may use policies as weaponry in battles over changes, exchanges called wikilawyering, that is, insisting upon the letter of a policy or guideline while violating its spirit or underlying principles. Policies and guidelines are used pejoratively to describe viewpoints as soapboxing, as parochial POV (point-of-view) forks, original research, fringe theory, employing unreliable sources, or synthesis of sources to support conclusions they do not contain verbatim, or violating a precept of Wikipedia to "present facts, not to teach subject matter". Tempers rise and contributors lose sight of the goals of WP to engage instead in duels of self-importance and gang enforcement. Impatience over content may lead to claims of bad conduct by one or the other disputing party. When conduct is seen as the issue, appeals for arbitration by Administrators or for arbitration by the Arbitration Committee result, requesting that the opposing parties be sanctioned. Once arbitration is invoked, content is no longer the issue, only conduct matters.[44]

Although almost anyone can edit articles on Wikipedia, sanctions result in exceptions: certain individuals are blocked partially or completely, temporarily or permanently, through actions of the Wikipedia administration from Wales on down. These blocking or banning actions tend to be hotly contested, and frequently are sought by contributors that have run into irresolvable conflict over content, or over personalities. It then falls upon individual Admins, or upon a consensus of Admins, or possibly upon ArbCom, to invoke a ban or block. It does occur that such decisions are arrived upon by conversations among Admins or ArbCom members not open to the public, or are made by individual Admins upon their personal assessment, and the results announced with only broad-brush explanation, and next to no attempt to provide a "legal" basis for the action based upon the Wikipedia policies and guidelines. These governing rules are held to be not hard-and-fast, but are to be handled with "common sense".[51][52]

More about arbitration

According to WP:

Any uninvolved administrator may, on his or her own discretion, impose sanctions on any editor working on a page within the area of conflict (or for whom discretionary sanctions have otherwise been authorized) if, despite being warned, that editor repeatedly or seriously fails to adhere to the purpose of Wikipedia, any expected standards of behavior, or any normal editorial process.[53]

In principle, this authority extends only to certain subject areas,[54] but in practice it is used more widely, for example, using an Administrator's personal assessment of having achieved "community consensus" on the AN/I noticeboard.[55]

Requests by contributors for arbitration by year on Wikipedia. (Data from Wikipedia.)
Average number of blocks/day each month in the first half of 2012 on English Wikipedia. Data from Wikipedia.

Besides this source of sanctions, a formal arbitration procedure exists. As shown to the right, the number of requests for formal arbitration cases has declined steadily with time, and the number of cases accepted for hearing has dropped to about a dozen per year. Explanation of these declines is ambiguous. One explanation is that both arbitrators and litigants are becoming disenchanted with arbitration cases, which are seen to be rather laborious because of the requirements for discovery and testimony. Another source of sanctions is requests for clarification and amendment and requests for enforcement, used to bring conflict to the attention of the Arbitration Committee. These actions, as with formal cases, can be diverted to any purpose by ArbCom, and are used instead of formal arbitration as a short-cut. In any case, the decline in formal arbitration cases, which use a formal proceeding, is not an indication of a decline in contention on Wikipedia, but simply means that more reliance is placed upon the large number of bans/blocks exercised by administrators without formal arbitration, which number in the hundreds per day.

According to Wikipedia:

Although Wikipedia does not employ hard-and-fast rules, Wikipedia policy and guideline pages describe its principles and best-known practices. Policies explain and describe standards that all users should normally follow, while guidelines are meant to outline best practices for following those standards in specific contexts. Policies and guidelines should always be applied using reason and common sense.[56]

The liberty for Admins to exercise "common sense" and the Ignore all rules policy relieves rulings from strict requirement that they be based upon guidelines or policies. In other words, administration is not a "rule of law".[57] In addition, no requirements exist to insist upon in-depth explanation of rulings, and requests for clarification can be ignored.[57][58]

Appeals to Admins or to ArbCom do not result necessarily in narrow consideration of direct issues at hand. Rather, the scope of deliberations may be enlarged, or even diverted to interests of Admins and of ArbCom quite apart from community concerns. According to Wikipedia:

Arbitration is not a court case - Arbitration is not a legal process with fixed approaches to problems: all actions and general conduct, not merely the direct issue, may be taken into account. A person's general manner, past actions or incidents, and the impressions of them by reasonable people, may all be used to guide the Arbitrators.[57](Italics in original.)

As a result, rulings and actions are free to be taken that have no bearing upon the original matter brought for adjudication and instead, to the amazement of some involved, and to the satisfaction of others, result in actions concerning other issues entirely, never envisioned by the litigants. When ArbCom introduces issues of their own, these are entertained outside the formal framework that safeguards fact-finding and organized discussion. In particular, ArbCom may focus their ruling upon their own ideas of "a person's general manner" and/or the "impressions of them by reasonable people", quite apart from community opinion and not necessarily tied to specific events.

Also according to Wikipedia:

Arbitrators focus on the risk and benefits for the future, not on past issues.[57]

In other words, ArbCom is at liberty to rule based not upon "who said exactly what in the past",[57] nor upon what is before them, but preemptively, based upon ArbCom predictions of hypothetical future behavior that could affect the project.[59]

"Administrators are not referees."[60] According to the WP article Wikipedia, the Arbitration Committee is: { |align="center" style="width:90%;font-size:90%;"

 |functioning not so much to resolve disputes and make peace between conflicting editors, but to weed out problematic editors...[61]

An appeals process exists, but overturn is unlikely except in cases of blatant misrule. One might naïvely expect that among the hundreds of administrators, a disputant might find some Admin that would find their protests worth consideration. However, shopping for any opinion (even neutral opinion) is considered to be forum shopping, campaigning or possibly votestacking (selective invitation of favorable support), considered to be deliberate disruptions of dispute resolution that are frowned upon. Use of e-mail to solicit opinion is called stealth canvassing and is "looked at more negatively" than contact via user talk-pages. Despite such restrictions upon finding support, it was found that indeed Admin support for litigants occasionally did occur, especially in cases of egregious abuse of authority. Apparently fearing wars between their numbers,[62] ArbCom passed an Enforcement Motion expressly to prevent any Admin from overturning a prior action by another Admin under the threat of immediate stripping of powers (deSysOpping). Consequently, any Admin protest over another Admin's actions is subject to protracted and tendentious review with a serious downside that strongly discourages such actions. That leaves a litigant with only a formal submission of an appeal to ArbCom or to Wales. It may be observed that ArbCom may be ruling upon an appeal of its own ruling, and Wales has little time to dig into disputes: "it is exceedingly unusual for him to intervene".[63]

Expert opinion

Expert opinion may be, and often is, challenged on WP. Attempts by an expert to educate the unversed via an on-line article Talk page possibly will require long discussion. Talk-page participants may become impatient with explanations important to the expert, but seemingly counter-intuitive or not of obvious significance to others, and that may lead to the Administrators' noticeboard/Incidents or Wikipedia:Arbitration/Requests/Enforcement. Once there, the deciding Admins or ArbCom may view an extended Talk-page exchange not so much as the expert's patient attempt at education, but more as evidence of unduly stubborn tendentious editing. This view is readily understood if one realizes that arbitrators are necessarily blind to content,[44] being restricted to adjudicating only behavior; for example, claims that the expert "doesn't get the point, but just persists in beating a dead horse". Imagine explaining a need for extended conversation to a panel of judges where content is explicitly set aside, and behavior is the focal issue![64][65][66]

The difference between edit warring as disruptive behavior and as an attempt to straighten out what an article says may depend upon who is considering the issue.[67]

Although edit warring in principle refers to Main-page editing, in practice it is considered disruptive editing to argue too much on the Talk page as well, especially by contributors not inclined to discussion, or finding themselves on the short end. For example, an expert's effort to persuade the unversed editors that their consensus is misplaced might be viewed as an action that "prevents other editors from reaching consensus", or as "continuing to edit in pursuit of a certain point despite an opposing consensus".

A possible sanction that may be imposed is a topic ban, which proposes sanctions upon an author should they contribute in certain subject areas:

a topic ban covers all pages (not only articles) broadly related to the topic, as well as the parts of other pages that are related to the topic

Of course, a topic ban presumes the ability to determine whether a topic has in fact arisen: does LBJ's pulling his dogs' ears fall under "politics"? Is all mathematics "physics-related"? Discriminating between real and ersatz assertions of topic-ban violation requires some expertise and some judgment about content, something Administrators expressly wish to avoid.

The usual result of a topic ban is that the raising of any objection that the sanctioned editor has violated the topic ban leads to the Administrators' Noticeboard or to direct implementation of the sanction upon the sole judgement of an Administrator, without requirement for consultation or expertise. One may wonder how a matter of content can be determined like this, given the restriction that arbitration enforcement is set up only to address user conduct problems, not disputes about content. However, WP is not about rules.

Most often, the attention of Administrators is best avoided, and article improvement abandoned when it faces continued opposition.[66]

Editing disputes and ArbCom

ArbCom has carte blanche in adjudication, as indicated above. It has the following freedoms: ArbCom is free to divert a case to any subject of their choosing.[68] They are empowered to rule pre-emptively based upon their conjectures about possible future activities.[69] They are free to ignore guidelines and policies in reaching a decision; their deliberations are articulated explicitly as not based upon the "rule of law".[70][71] They can consider or ignore facts selectively, and are free instead to adopt the mere opinions of those whose judgment they happen to value.[72]

With neither built-in safeguards nor standards, proper administration of Wikipedia depends 100% upon the integrity, good judgment, and responsiveness of its Administrators, particularly those in ArbCom.

In theory, ArbCom decisions can be appealed to Jimbo Wales, but he has never in fact overruled one and has said he expects never to do so.


Wikipedia has policies that "all editors should normally follow" unless the rules contradict "common sense". These policies have developed by consensus over time. The neutral point of view or NPOV policy recommends that articles represent a wide variety of opinions while remaining neutral. A "simple formulation" of this policy is given as: "Assert facts, including facts about opinions - but do not assert the opinions themselves".[73] The neutrality policy also disallows moralizing, preferring to let the facts "speak for themselves". In the section on balance, the policy asserts that viewpoints should be weighted according to their prominence. On an article on the Holocaust, for instance, it would be required to point out that the opinions of Holocaust deniers (or 'revisionist scholars') make up a tiny proportion of the learned opinion on the subject. The policy also bans "POV forks", that is articles about existing topics that contain just supportive or critical material. If one were to start an article entitled "Benefits of Homeopathy" because the article on Homeopathy was considered too critical or sceptical, this would be considered a breach of the neutrality policies.

Wikipedia recommends that claims in articles be verifiable, which generally means that "reliable" sources must be pointed out so that readers can follow up and verify Wikipedia's claims. Original research and writing is not allowed on Wikipedia.[74]

Wikipedia's "Be bold" policy,[75] which has become widely used on other wikis and collaborative projects, encourages participation by letting people just jump in, even at risk of breaking other policies.

To avoid deletion, new or proposed articles must satisfy several criteria that are enforced by the site's administrators: notability,[76] verifiability[77] (not 'truth'),[78] reliability of sources[79] and neutral point of view.[80] "Information cannot be included solely for being true or useful."[81] In addition, new articles can be 'speedily deleted' by administrators if the author fails to assert the significance of the subject.[82] An example of the latter occurred in September 2007, when a row erupted over the deletion of a 'stub' article started by co-founder Jimmy Wales.[83][84]


Screenshot of the English Wikipedia "blacked out" on January 18, 2012, during its protest against proposed U.S. legislation.

On January 18, 2012, the English version of Wikipedia was "blacked out" for 24 hours to protest against two bills going through the U.S. Congress, the "Stop Online Piracy Act" (SOPA), and the "Protect IP Act" (PIPA). Users attempting to access Wikipedia articles were instead redirected to an information page explaining the organization's opposition to the legislation.[85]

Criticisms and controversies

A clear statement of Wikipedia's underlying principle of operation was made by McHenry,[86] who said Wikipedia is based upon the belief that, despite a process in which "Anyone, irrespective of expertise in or even familiarity with the topic, can submit an article and it will be published", nonetheless articles will improve over time because:

"Some unspecified quasi-Darwinian process will assure that those writings and editings by contributors of greatest expertise will survive; articles will eventually reach a steady state that corresponds to the highest degree of accuracy."

Because of this untrammeled access to editing, the stability of articles is uncertain, and their quality fluctuates with time as more and less competent writers modify articles, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Sometimes entire articles disappear, being shortened and absorbed into more general articles, and sometimes subtopics are enlarged to become articles in their own right. It may disconcert readers and authors of careful articles to see them changed beyond recognition.

Another consequence of anonymous editing by anyone is exposure to factual inaccuracy and vulnerability to vandalism. A notorious incident involving Wikipedia's inaccuracies was the John Seigenthaler biography controversy, in which an anonymous Wikipedia editor wrote a biography of a John Seigenthaler alleging that Seigenthaler was involved in the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.[87]

In July 2006, The New Yorker ran an extensive article about WP by 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Stacy Schiff, discussing WP's accuracy and editorial policies.[88] The article included material from a telephone interview with a high-ranking Wikipedia administrator called "Essjay", who was discovered later to have lied about his career, background, and academic credentials, leading to a rare apology by The New Yorker:

Editors’ Note: The July 31, 2006, piece on Wikipedia, “Know It All,” by Stacy Schiff, contained an interview with a Wikipedia site administrator and contributor called Essjay, whose responsibilities included handling disagreements about the accuracy of the site’s articles and taking action against users who violate site policy. He was described in the piece as “a tenured professor of religion at a private university” with “a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law.”

Essjay was recommended to Ms. Schiff as a source by a member of Wikipedia’s management team because of his respected position within the Wikipedia community. He was willing to describe his work as a Wikipedia administrator but would not identify himself other than by confirming the biographical details that appeared on his user page. At the time of publication, neither we nor Wikipedia knew Essjay’s real name. Essjay’s entire Wikipedia life was conducted with only a user name; anonymity is common for Wikipedia administrators and contributors, and he says that he feared personal retribution from those he had ruled against online. Essjay now says that his real name is Ryan Jordan, that he is twenty-four and holds no advanced degrees, and that he has never taught. He was recently hired by Wikia—a for-profit company affiliated with Wikipedia—as a “community manager”; he continues to hold his Wikipedia positions. He did not answer a message we sent to him; Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikia and of Wikipedia, said of Essjay’s invented persona, “I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it.”[88]

In March 2007, Jimmy Wales asked Essjay to resign his "positions of trust" so as to maintain WP's "twin pillars of trust and tolerance", adding "the harmony of our work depends on human understanding and forgiveness of errors." Apparently this action was not taken because of lying about credentials to make a fake persona, but because "EssJay used his false credentials in content disputes."[89]

In June 2007, the Wikimedia Foundation hit the headlines again over a prescient announcement of the death of professional wrestler Chris Benoit and his wife and son, placed on the Wikinews site hours before police discovered the bodies. Georgia police told reporters that the information had been a significant hindrance to their investigations.[90] The individual responsible was traced via their IP address, and claimed the apparent foreknowledge was fortuitous.[91] No charges were filed against the writer.

Also in June 2007, as reported in Wikipedia's own on-line newspaper, in rejecting an attempt to register a trademark, the UK Intellectual Property Office based their decision in part on the Wikipedia article on Formula One motor racing. Despite noting that Wikipedia could host "potentially libellous statements", the final ruling extensively quotes Wikipedia sources and includes a claim by author David Landau that "inherently, I cannot see that what is in Wikipedia is any less likely to be true than what is published in a book or on the websites of news organisations". As unreported on Wikipedia, Landau also noted that the material referred to contains "the history and background of F1 racing, nothing particularly controversial."

In October 2011, users of the Italian version of Wikipedia opted to suspend the site due to the possibility of a new law being passed in Italy that would possibly allow legal action over material believed offensive.[92]

On September 7, 2012, Philip Roth challenged the statement that of one of his books The Human Stain was based upon a particular real-life occurrence, and was told he was not a credible source. Wikipedia informed Roth: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,” writes the Wikipedia Administrator—“but we require secondary sources.”[93] Some of the nonsensical exchange between editors is found here. This experience parallels that of Messer-Kruse,[66] a published expert on the history of the Haymarket riot, who was not allowed to change the Wikipedia account to correct misinformation about the trial because "we're not in the business of weighing claims, but reporting what reliable sources write."

On 2 October 2013, the Regional High Court in Stuttgart, Germany, found a person's right to privacy outweighed the public's right to know of any past allegations, and that the Wikipedia Foundation is liable for any content published regardless if the content came from a quoted source. The court also found that as Wikipedia is regularly updated, any defamatory material should therefore be immediately removed.[94] Until recently such court rulings affected only Wikimedia German, but this decision was directed at the entire Foundation.[95]

Forks and spin-offs

The concept of Wiki's collaborative projects, along with criticisms of Wikipedia, has led to the emergence of several forks and spin-offs of Wikipedia. Examples include Wikinfo, a fork created by Fred Bauder; Conservapedia, a Wiki-style encyclopedia for political conservatives (in the American sense) and Protestant Fundamentalists; Veropedia (now defunct), founded by Danny Wool, which, funded by advertising, copied and fixed selected Wikipedia articles, and New World Encyclopedia, an encyclopedia written by "editors with academic and literary qualifications" but all from the perspective of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church,[96] launched in 2008.[97] Veropedia closed in January 2009. Citizendium, an encyclopedic project established by Larry Sanger, the co-founder of Wikipedia, was originally a Wikipedia fork. Sanger has criticised numerous aspects of Wikipedia, including lack of respect for expertise and the dominance of 'difficult people' or trolls.[98] Citizendium differs primarily from Wikipedia in that its chief goal is to have "reliable" and high-quality content.[99] It hopes to achieve that goal by only allowing users with real-name registration to edit, while giving experts in a particular field more authority regarding its content.

Development of editing restrictions

In June 2010, the English Wikipedia introduced editing restrictions known as 'Pending Changes'. Pages under Pending Changes protection may be edited by anybody, but changes by unregistered users must be approved by a reviewer.[100]

Such an approach has been compared to Citizendium,[101] though co-founder (and Citizendium founder) Larry Sanger has stated that it will not solve the problems endemic to the site, such as extensive duplication from copyrighted texts and persistent disputes over edits, largely because existing contributors "act like each other's editors, forming their requests as orders and in other ways competing to outdo each other".[102]


  1. It should be noted that anonymity is not complete. Certain administrators can conduct sockpuppet investigations to determine the identity of accounts.
  2. Wikipedia:Consensus. Wikipedia. Retrieved on 2011-10-15. The notion of consensus on Wikipedia is that "consensus [is] a natural and inherent product of editing" and "the process of finding a consensus is continued by discussion on the relevant talk pages". Where these processes don't succeed, "consensus" is enforced by authority, which deals with behavioral issues, not content. There is no role provided for "expert opinion" in the notion of consensus. More detail is found in the section Editing environment.
  3. This term is explained as "the acquisition and spread of knowledge amongst the common people, not just privileged elites such as priests and academics." Democratization of knowledge. Wikipedia. Retrieved on 2011-10-15.
  4. The various levels of administration and the authority of each level are outlined in the section Administration.
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  32. The distinction is between a ruling and its enforcement. "Blocking should not be confused with banning, a formal retraction of editing privileges on all or part of Wikipedia. Blocks disable a user's ability to edit pages; bans do not. However, users who breach a ban (edit while banned) are likely to be blocked to enforce the ban on them." Although a block can prevent editing of the entire site, a blocked editor is not "banned" from the site and remains a member of the community. See Wikipedia:Banning policy – Difference between bans and blocks. Wikipedia (1 December 2011). Retrieved on 2011-12-03.
  33. §2. ArbCom Enforcement Motion. Case against editor: ‘A Nobody’ (14 March 2010). Retrieved on 2012-01-04.
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  41. Error on call to Template:cite web: Parameters url and title must be specified. Wikipedia. Retrieved on 2011-10-20.
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  52. "The rules are principles, not laws, on Wikipedia. Policies and guidelines exist only as rough approximations..." Wikipedia:The rules are principles. Wikipedia. Retrieved on 2011-10-21.
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  54. For example, see affected areas and articles on probation and articles on community probation
  55. In these circumstances "community" refers to those participants involved in a specific discussion on the AN/I noticeboard.
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  58. Requests for clarification. Wikipedia. Retrieved on 2011-11-01. “Arbitrators or Clerks may summarily remove or refactor discussion without comment.”
  59. In foreseeing the future, Arbitrators play the role of 'precogs' in the science-fiction work by Philip K. Dick (2002). The Minority Report. Random House Digital, Inc. ISBN 0375421874. .
  60. This is a quote from Wikipedia:Dispute resolution and Wikipedia: Policies and Guidelines: Basic Overview
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  64. Phoebe Ayers, Charles Matthews, Ben Yates (2008). How Wikipedia works: and how you can be a part of it. No Starch Press, p. 399. ISBN 159327176X. “Article content is not judged in arbitration cases, only editor behavior” 
  65. David A. Hoffman, Salil K Mehra (August 26, 2009). Wikitruth through Wikiorder. Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper. Retrieved on 2011-10-20. "The data show that Wiki-dispute resolution ignores the content of user disputes, instead focusing on user conduct."
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  96. as stated on its info page. The philosophical and axiological foundations for the project derive from life and teachings of its originator, Sun Myung Moon [3]."
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