Researchers Tackle the Question, Is Wikipedia Biased?

By Devon Glenn 

Are the volunteers who write and edit Wikipedia entries capable of maintaining a neutral point of view on easily skewed topics like politics and history?

Shane Greenstein, a professor of management and strategy at the Kellogg School of Management; and Feng Zhu, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, have found that the online encyclopedia has become more neutral in the last decade.

According to an article on the Kellog school website, the professors conducted a study based on the same formula that’s used for testing the political slant of printed newspapers. First, they searched for the words “democrat” and “republican” to narrow their search results to 111,216 articles. Next, they took out the entries related to non-U.S. politics to create a more manageable sampling of 70,000 entries.

Here’s what they learned:

Greenstein and Zhu’s results were limited to what they refer to as “vintages”—that is, the first version of articles that appear on Wikipedia. In aggregate, this provides a static snapshot of the amount of bias present in Wikipedia’s “first draft.” (Forthcoming studies will examine how this bias is affected by Wikipedia’s ongoing revision process.) The authors found that vintages from early in Wikipedia’s history displayed a distinct Democratic slant. Later vintages were less slanted, meaning that the 70,000-article sample exhibited, on average, a “drift” toward NPOV over the course of a decade.

Greenstein said that possible explanations for the slant include the general demographics of the internet population, the availability of broadband internet, or “just the luck of the draw” as to who was online and using Wikipedia in 2003 and 2004.

Through the years, Wikipedia’s overall growth helped balance the scales, which could tip in either direction if the number of active contributors to the site goes down. Another recent study indicates that editorial activity on the site has, in fact, declined.

But Wikipedia has published a Neutral Point of View Doctrine to steer its editors away from bias. Greenstein told the Daily Dot, “They get the need for neutrality. They know that’s central to credibility.”

Image by Jeff Cameron Collingwood