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Wikipedia: The ultimate source of online information ?

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Wikipedia: The ultimate source of online information ?

What is Wikipedia ?

Wikipedia is a mostly free,web-based, collaborative, multilingual encyclopedia project supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Its 17 million articles (over 3.5 million in English) have been written collaboratively by volunteers around the world, and almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the site.Wikipedia was launched in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger and has become the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet,ranking seventh among all websites on Alexa and having 365 million readers.

The name Wikipedia was coined by Larry Sanger and is a portmanteau from wiki (a technology for creating collaborative websites, from the Hawaiian word wiki, meaning "quick") and encyclopedia.

Although the policies of Wikipedia strongly espouse verifiability and a neutral point of view, critics of Wikipedia accuse it of systemic bias and inconsistencies (including undue weight given to popular culture), and allege that it favors consensus over credentials in its editorial processes. Its reliability and accuracy are also targeted.Other criticisms center on its susceptibility to vandalism and the addition of spurious or unverified information,though scholarly work suggests that vandalism is generally short-lived,and an investigation in Nature found that the science articles they compared came close to the level of accuracy of Encyclopædia Britannica and had a similar rate of "serious errors".

Wikipedia's departure from the expert-driven style of the encyclopedia building mode and the large presence of unacademic content have been noted several times. When Time magazine recognized You as its Person of the Year for 2006, acknowledging the accelerating success of online collaboration and interaction by millions of users around the world, it cited Wikipedia as one of several examples of Web 2.0 services, along with YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook.Some noted the importance of Wikipedia not only as an encyclopedic reference but also as a frequently updated news resource because of how quickly articles about recent events appear.Students have been assigned to write Wikipedia articles as an exercise in clearly and succinctly explaining difficult concepts to an uninitiated audience.

Wikipedia began as a complementary project for Nupedia, a free online English-language encyclopedia project whose articles were written by experts and reviewed under a formal process. Nupedia was founded on March 9, 2000, under the ownership of Bomis, Inc, a web portal company. Its main figures were Jimmy Wales, Bomis CEO, and Larry Sanger, editor-in-chief for Nupedia and later Wikipedia. Nupedia was licensed initially under its own Nupedia Open Content License, switching to the GNU Free Documentation License before Wikipedia's founding at the urging of Richard Stallman.

Main Page of the English Wikipedia on October 20, 2010.

Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales founded Wikipedia.While Wales is credited with defining the goal of making a publicly editable encyclopedia, Sanger is usually credited with the strategy of using a wiki to reach that goal. On January 10, 2001, Larry Sanger proposed on the Nupedia mailing list to create a wiki as a "feeder" project for Nupedia.Wikipedia was formally launched on January 15, 2001, as a single English-language edition at www.wikipedia.com, and announced by Sanger on the Nupedia mailing list Wikipedia's policy of "neutral point-of-view"was codified in its initial months, and was similar to Nupedia's earlier "nonbiased" policy. Otherwise, there were relatively few rules initially and Wikipedia operated independently of Nupedia

Graph of number of articles and rate of increase showing article count doubling each year until the end of 2006, and becoming a linear increase in 2007.
Graph of the article count for the English Wikipedia, from January 10, 2001, to September 9, 2007 (the date of the two-millionth article).

Wikipedia gained early contributors from Nupedia, Slashdot postings, and web search engine indexing. It grew to approximately 20,000 articles and 18 language editions by the end of 2001. By late 2002, it had reached 26 language editions, 46 by the end of 2003, and 161 by the final days of 2004 Nupedia and Wikipedia coexisted until the former's servers were taken down permanently in 2003, and its text was incorporated into Wikipedia. English Wikipedia passed the two million-article mark on September 9, 2007, making it the largest encyclopedia ever assembled, eclipsing even the Yongle Encyclopedia (1407), which had held the record for exactly 600 years.

Citing fears of commercial advertising and lack of control in a perceived English-centric Wikipedia, users of the Spanish Wikipedia forked from Wikipedia to create the Enciclopedia Libre in February 2002.Later that year, Wales announced that Wikipedia would not display advertisements, and its website was moved to wikipedia.org.Various other wiki-encyclopedia projects have been started, largely under a different philosophy from the open and NPOV editorial model of Wikipedia. Wikinfo does not require a neutral point of view and allows original research. New Wikipedia-inspired projects – such as Citizendium, Scholarpedia, Conservapedia, and Google's Knol where the articles are a little more essayistic  – have been started to address perceived limitations of Wikipedia, such as its policies on peer review, original research, and commercial advertising.

Number of articles in the English Wikipedia plotted against Gompertz function tending to 4.4 million articles.

Though the English Wikipedia reached three million articles in August 2009, the growth of the edition, in terms of the numbers of articles and of contributors, appeared to have flattened off around early 2007.In July 2007, about 2,200 articles were added daily to the encyclopedia; as of August 2009, that average is 1,300. A team led by Ed H. Chi at the Palo Alto Research Center speculated that this is due to the increasing exclusiveness of the project.New or occasional editors have significantly higher rates of their edits reverted (removed) than an elite group of regular editors, colloquially known as the "cabal." This could make it more difficult for the project to recruit and retain new contributors, over the long term resulting in stagnation in article creation. Others simply point out that the low-hanging fruit, the obvious articles like China, already exist, and believe that the growth is flattening naturally.

In November 2009, a Ph.D thesis written by Felipe Ortega, a researcher at the Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid, found that the English Wikipedia had lost 49,000 editors during the first three months of 2009; in comparison, the project lost only 4,900 editors during the same period in 2008.The Wall Street Journal reported that "unprecedented numbers of the millions of online volunteers who write, edit and police [Wikipedia] are quitting." The array of rules applied to editing and disputes related to such content are among the reasons for this trend that are cited in the article.These claims were disputed by Jimmy Wales, who denied the decline and questioned the methodology of the study

The open nature of the editing model has been central to most criticism of Wikipedia. For example, a reader of an article cannot be certain that it has not been compromised by the insertion of false information or the removal of essential information. Former Encyclopædia Britannica editor-in-chief Robert McHenry once described this by saying:

The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him. Wikipedia [is a] faith-based encyclopedia.
White-haired elderly gentleman in suit and tie speaks at a podium.
John Seigenthaler has described Wikipedia as "a flawed and irresponsible research tool."

Obvious vandalism is easy to remove from wiki articles, since the previous versions of each article are kept. In practice, the median time to detect and fix vandalisms is very low, usually a few minutes,but in one particularly well-publicized incident, false information was introduced into the biography of American political figure John Seigenthaler and remained undetected for four months. John Seigenthaler, the founding editorial director of USA Today and founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, called Jimmy Wales and asked if Wales had any way of knowing who contributed the misinformation. Wales replied that he did not, but nevertheless the perpetrator was eventually traced.This incident led to policy changes on the site, specifically targeted at tightening up the verifiability of all biographical articles of living people.

Wikipedia's open structure inherently makes it an easy target for Internet trolls, spamming, and those with an agenda to push.The addition of political spin to articles by organizations including members of the U.S. House of Representatives and special interest groups has been noted,and organizations such as Microsoft have offered financial incentives to work on certain articles.These issues have been parodied, notably by Stephen Colbert in The Colbert Report.

For example, in August 2007, the website WikiScanner began to trace the sources of changes made to Wikipedia by anonymous editors without Wikipedia accounts. The program revealed that many such edits were made by corporations or government agencies changing the content of articles related to them, their personnel or their work.

In practice, Wikipedia is defended from attack by multiple systems and techniques. These include users checking pages and edits, computer programs ('bots') that are carefully designed to try to detect attacks and fix them automatically (or semi-automatically), filters that warn users making undesirable edits, blocks on the creation of links to particular websites, blocks on edits from particular accounts, IP addresses or address ranges.

For heavily attacked pages, particular articles can be semi-protected so that only well established accounts can edit them,or for particularly contentious cases, locked so that only administrators are able to make changes.Such locking is applied sparingly, usually for only short periods of time while attacks appear likely to continue.