As a follow-up to the previous post about the British Museum’s collaboration with Wikipedia, I’d like to publish a text that was distributed originally on the private agade mailing list. It is written by A.J. Cave.


At 3:14 UTC on June 8th, 2010, English Wikipedia had 3, 317,225 articles and 12,495,212 registered users.  At 4:29 on June 8th there were 3,317,230 articles and 12,495,394 registered users.  In one hour and 15 minutes, Wikipedia had added 5 new articles and 82 new registered users (that is 1.1 registered user per minute!).

Now these numbers might not mean much to you and me, but they mean a lot to online search engines.

Google loves constant change, so it gives preference in its search algorithms to anything posted on Wikipedia above other less active web-based sources.  Google search bots comb through Wikipedia pages regularly like giant spiders, devouring, adding and indexing the ever-growing volume of information.

In the early days of Wikipedia, many techies joined and started writing too.  Some [like me] were more interested to test the underlying technology and see how another web “startup” could shape the internet rather than writing an online encyclopedia.

Since those early days in 2001, Wikipedia has grown into one of the largest websites, with an estimated 800+million [give and take a few] visitors a year.  There are more than 91,000 active contributors working mostly collaboratively on more than 15,000,000 articles in over 270 languages.  About 75,000 editors, from expert scholars to casual readers, regularly edit Wikipedia.

Wikipedia articles usually rank in the top 5 search results depending on the topic.

As mobile search heats up thanks to smartphones that have more capabilities than old personal computers, being among the top 5 search results on a tiny screen becomes even more important.  There is even a Wikipedia website for mobile access at:

I googled British Museum and the Wikipedia article on British Museum showed up as number 4 on the search list, right after the map of the museum and 2 links to museum’s website.  Another Google search on Cyrus Cylinder, a part of the current British Museum’s collection, placed the Wikipedia article in the number 1 spot, with a link to British Museum website at number 4.

Not all Wikipedia articles are of encyclopedic quality and since there is no systematic process to force an all-volunteer army of Wikipedians to write about every topic considered “obviously important” by others, Wikipedia does contain oversights and omissions.

Due to its nature, Wikipedia needs more subject matter experts and specialists in many areas.

So it is not hard to see the motive behind the recent news about the collaboration between the British Museum and a group of London area-based Wikipedians to ensure the museum collection is adequately reflected on the virtual pages of Wikipedia.

The key advantage of Wikipedia over traditional paper encyclopedias is the short editorial cycle, where Wikipedians can update an article anytime with the most recent events and scholarship.  For example the publicly announced results of the upcoming British Museum Workshop on Cyrus Cylinder in late June could hit the corresponding Wikipedia article by one of the Wikipedians with the “backstage” pass to the museum before it reaches other online and print news sources.

Wikipedia has a set of rules that have developed over the years and there is no need to cover them in details here.  If you are interested, you can click on the ‘About Wikipedia’ and read them.  These rules are important because there are a few million Wikipedians and blood would flow in the streets of Wikidom, if there are no rules.

While is a good idea to read Wikipedia’s tutorials, policies and guidelines, sorting through volumes of information can be intimating for newcomers.  So here are a few helpful hints:

1. No matter what you do, you can’t break Wikipedia.  Wikipedia has robust version controls, so you cannot accidentally do permanent harm if you make a mistake in your editing.  All mistakes can be quickly and easily reversed or fixed by any other editor.

2. Start small.  The best way to break in and feel comfortable is do minor edits first.

3. While to edit an article, you can remain anonymous, to create a new article you have to register with a valid email userid and a password.  If you are concerned about privacy and anonymity, you may prefer to create a user name for yourself in order to hide your IP address.

4. Before starting a major edit, announce your intentions on the “Discussion” page of the article.

5. Wikipedians are expected to be civil and neutral, respecting all points of view, and only add verifiable and factual information with cited external sources rather than personal views and opinions.

6. An ideal Wikipedia article aims to be well-researched, well-written, balanced, and neutral with verifiable information, suited for an encyclopedia.  However, many Wikipedia articles start as a “stub”. A stub is an article containing only a few sentences of text which is too short to provide encyclopedic coverage of a topic, but not so short as to provide no useful information, and it should be capable of expansion.

7. Wikipedia articles are always work in progress and vary in quality and maturity.  However, given that anyone can edit any article, it is possible for biased, outdated, or incorrect information to be posted.

8. Wikipedia does not allow original research and there is no elaborate system of scholarly peer review.

9. All articles are susceptible to vandalism and insertion of false information – particularly articles on popular and controversial topics.  But they eventually get cleaned up, either via consensus among Wikipedians or through intervention by the editors using Wikipedia’s conflict resolution systems.  A lock on an article’s page means the article is temporarily protected from editing by everyone and restricted to a few editors.

10. There are no content guarantees, so always check the History page to see if the article has been vandalized.

11. For those who teach, if you think your students have changed a Wikipedia article to match their research papers, just have them printout the History of a Wikipedia article and hand over!

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