Wikipedia has fallen behind on an enormous backlog of editorial work. This has led to hundreds of thousands of articles that don't meet the community's standards for quality remaining unfinished on the site and creating a "monster under the rug" for the world's largest encyclopedia. That's the perspective of Sven Manguard, one Wikipedia community member who published an opinion piece this week on the site's community news section, The Signpost. The perspective was widely agreed upon in discussion.
"Whatever people may say about declining participation, Wikipedia still generates a lot of new content," Manguard begins. "We add articles and upload dozens upon dozens of files every day, and that is unquestionably a good thing. However, as a community, we tend to neglect a large variety of problems that have cropped up in older articles. We sweep them under the rug, so to speak, and that is unquestionably a very bad thing."
Manguard helps with the back end of Wikipedia, behind the scenes. Anyone though, he says, can easily find long lists of problems that need to be fixed.
"The fact of the matter is that Wikipedia has swept so many problems under the rug that we now have a monster on our hands," he writes.
"We have backlogs that are in the hundreds, in the thousands, and in a few cases, in the hundreds of thousands, that have sat relatively untackled for months or years. These aren't petty issues either. There are 250,000 articles that need references. By that, I don't mean that they need more references, I mean that there are, at last count, a quarter million articles that do not have a single citation to support them, and those are just the articles that are tagged as such. Some of these completely unreferenced articles were tagged as far back as October 2006, a half decade ago. There are an additional 250,000 articles that need additional references, and over 200,000 with unsourced statements. Less absurdly high in count but just as important, there are almost 10,000 articles tagged as containing original research, over 8,500 with disputed neutrality, and over 5,500 with disputed accuracy.
For context, the English section of Wikipedia contains 3.77 million articles. That means that the 250,000 articles that need references but have none make up 6.6% of the site's articles.
Manguard's write-up of the situation concludes with a plea for people to jump in and take a big bite out of the problem. He crossed off 1500 items in a single month on his own, he writes.
Wikimedia Foundation staff member Neil Kandalgaonkar says that it's a workflow management issue that ought to be a solvable problem.
"This discussion hasn't really made it to the wikis yet, but at the Foundation, some of us are trying to start a movement towards documenting and re-examining how Wikipedia handles workflows. Firstly, the Foundation employees are hired for skill and availability, so they are rarely wiki-insiders, and often unaware of how complicated some of the processes are. Secondly, once you document these workflows, certain weaknesses in them become apparent.
"It seems that this pattern comes up over and over again; where things are seriously broken, it's because there's no system to channel resources appropriately. So you need to make appeals for heroic behavior. This is unsustainable.
"The wiki model is great when, in one person, you can combine a lot of roles: noticing a problem, doing research, scheduling a time to do the work, and the requisite technical skill. All that comes into play, even if you're just fixing a typo. But when the problems are larger and more difficult, it starts to make sense for there to be different roles and stages to the work, and maybe even different incentives.
"A site of our size should not be frightened of a queue of work that is several thousand items long. We just have to figure out how to activate our readers' interest. What do you think?"
Manguard points to Germany, where all kinds of beautiful complex concepts are wrapped up in powerful, singular and really long words. There, Wikipedians participate in an annual competition to clean up backlog called Wartungsbausteinwettbewerb.
Perhaps all we need is a good dose of Wartungsbausteinwettbewerb, world wide. (I once had a cat named Wartungsbausteinwettbewerb. That's not true but I did once meet a cat named Weltschmerz, the German word for "feeling the pain of the world." Poor cat.)
Either way, it should probably be no surprise that the world's largest and richest encyclopedia struggles with a backlog of editorial refinements and improvements that need to be performed. It should probably also be no surprise that a community-driven project like this has some struggles with management.
It should be noted, however, that despite its many challenges and problems - Wikipedia is an awesome world-changing phenomenon that represents a huge net win for humanity. Everyone who works to keep it that way deserves meaningful commendation.