Press release 2021/008 from

Wikipedia is arguably the internet’s best-known free encyclopaedia. Many internet users rely on the wide-ranging knowledge of Wikipedia. The encyclopaedia was founded on 15 January 2001. Professor Christian Pentzold from the Institute of Communication and Media Studies at Leipzig University wrote his dissertation about it.

How has Wikipedia evolved since its inception? Do you have some facts and figures?

The German-language Wikipedia currently comprises more than 2.5 million articles, contributed by more than 3.6 million registered users and a hard-to-quantify number of unregistered users. Wikipedia is available in over 250 languages, with English being the most prominent version with more than 6 million articles. Wikipedia is one of the top ten most visited internet sites, so it is in a league with Facebook, Amazon and Google. It is, however, something of an anomaly compared to these platforms, since it is run by unpaid, volunteer authors and its content is available free of charge.

What are the most common topics on Wikipedia?

If you consider the number of articles alone, then it can be said that Wikipedia covers all topics well. But unlike printed reference works, there is no editorial plan according to which topics are given more or less text depending on their importance. At Wikipedia, it’s all about the personal interests of the active writers. For instance, there are very detailed accounts of The Lord of the Rings, the Klingon language, and other arguably niche subjects.

How reliable are the articles in general?

The articles tend to be fairly reliable, or in other words: studies have shown that Wikipedia articles contain just as many errors as their printed counterparts. Of course, mistakes can always creep in or be intentionally inserted. What’s more interesting are the error control and correction mechanisms put in place by Wikipedians.

Who checks the texts and how is the encyclopaedia paid for?

The project is mainly supported by donations, and the authors who actually contribute to articles do not receive any payment. The texts themselves are checked by the hard-working users, who now rely on a whole range of technological aides that can also detect some errors automatically. 

What did you learn about Wikipedia when researching your dissertation?

I looked at why the project even exists, so what it is that keeps writers on the project in the long term. The intriguing thing is that Wikipedians (the majority of whom are young, tech-savvy, well-educated men from industrialised nations) find this work quite fraught with conflict and exhausting – and yet they still routinely contribute to it, despite not being compelled to do so by any contract, agreement, or remuneration. Starting from their daily participation, the project becomes a priority for them, and they grow accustomed to being responsible.  

A look into the future from the expert: How might Wikipedia evolve in the coming years?

It will be a challenge to keep convincing new authors to contribute to the project – partly because the spectrum of activities is changing from collecting to managing knowledge. In addition to this, Wikipedia has become a model for a variety of initiatives based on commons-based collaboration.