This article reports what observable writing activities characterized three Wikipedia articles, archive, design, and writing, over a three-year period from 2012–2014. It then compares these results to writing in these same three articles 10 years earlier, from 2002–2004. Results show that articles were longer and more referenced in 2012–2014. The most frequent written contributions in 2012–2014 were adding and deleting content, followed by vandalizing and reverting vandalism. Ten years earlier, content addition was likewise the most frequent activity, though vandalism and its removal were not found. The least frequent written contributions in 2012–2014 were organizing and formatting content. Both activities occurred more often 10 years earlier. The number of contributors grew significantly in 2012–2014, though during both time periods approximately ¾ of participants contributed only once. These results support that writing in Wikipedia continues to support notions of revision and collaboration valued in the discipline of writing studies. However, the revision and collaboration that occurred were limited. Thus, more robust approaches to these concepts are needed when using Wikipedia to teach writing. More broadly, Wikipedia contributors need to focus more on organizing and formatting article content for readers.
Results and discussion
Comparison and contrast of findings
Both reviled and celebrated, Wikipedia has become a staple of online research. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center report, Wikipedia averaged more than 18 billion page views per month (Anderson, Hitlin, and Atkinson, 2016b). As of 2018, Wikipedia was the tenth most visited Web site in the world (Domocos, 2018) . Contributing in large part to these visits is that Wikipedia articles are often a top result on Google searches. In fact, in the U.S., the English version of Wikipedia was the second most visited Web site by search traffic from Google as of June 2020. It was the third most visited Web site worldwide (Hardwick, 2020). Not surprisingly, then, conversations about students’ online research practices frequently — almost undoubtedly — turn to Wikipedia. For today’s college students and younger, Wikipedia, which was founded in 2001, has always existed. It has always been part of their research-writing toolkit and has undeniably shaped their understanding of what it means to do research. As sociologist Carrie James (2014) put it, “for students, Wikipedia has become the source of choice for homework assignments and research papers.” 
The ever-growing body of scholarship on Wikipedia has helped teacher-scholars understand best practices for how to use Wikipedia in both teaching and research. More broadly, this scholarship has drawn attention to the dynamics of collaborative authorship in a space where rewards of participation are intrinsic. These rewards depart from traditional systems of credit based on intellectual property ownership. Contributors write for Wikipedia not because they will receive financial or cultural capital ; their identities are anonymous. Rather they write because they care enough about a topic to want to shape how it is explained in a public encyclopedia (or because they want to vandalize; more on this later).
The sustained attention of teacher-scholars to Wikipedia since its creation in 2001 shows its continued influence. Wikipedia not only shapes research-writing practices and thinking, but also captures users’ imagination about what it means to make meaning and circulate knowledge in the world — as well as who has the privilege and means to do so. Many teacher-scholars have made peace with Wikipedia, accepting it as a reality of the digital textual landscape that they and their students navigate. Other teacher-scholars continue to be amazed at (and perhaps lament) its enduring success. As a writing studies  scholar, my interest in Wikipedia centers on the writing that happens there. In saving each version of every article, Wikipedia is, above all, an archive of its own writing.
This aspect of Wikipedia, however, remains understudied. With the exception of John Jones’ (2008) excellent study of revision activities in 10 Wikipedia articles nominated to be featured, the literature published on Wikipedia has not yet focused much on what writing activities characterize Wikipedia articles. Moreover, no scholarship, to my knowledge, has examined to what extent, if any, these activities have evolved over time. To address this gap, this article reports what observable writing activities characterized three English-language Wikipedia articles and to what extent these writing activities changed after 10 years. It shares results of a study analyzing all versions of three Wikipedia articles, archive, design, and writing , over a three-year period from 2012–2014. It then compares them to results of a similar study I conducted (Purdy, 2009) analyzing all versions of these same articles 10 years earlier, from 2002–2004.
Results show that the most frequent written contributions to the archive, design, and writing Wikipedia articles in 2012–2014 were adding and deleting content. These activities were followed by vandalizing and reverting vandalism. Ten years earlier, content addition was likewise the most frequent activity, though vandalism and its removal were not found. The least frequent written contributions in 2012–2014 were organizing and formatting content. Both activities occurred more often 10 years earlier. The number of contributors grew significantly in 2012–2014, though during both time periods approximately 75 percent of participants contributed only once. These results support that writing in Wikipedia continues to support notions of revision and collaboration valued in the discipline of writing studies. However, the revision and collaboration that occurred were limited. Thus, more robust approaches to these concepts are needed when using Wikipedia to teach writing. More broadly, Wikipedia contributors need to focus more on organizing and formatting article content for readers.
When I first published on Wikipedia in College composition and communication in 2009, my discipline of writing studies was just beginning to study Wikipedia and its use. Significant work has been published on Wikipedia (and wikis more generally) in the more than decade since, both inside and outside of writing studies. Fully reviewing this volume of literature is beyond the scope of this project . However, highlights of this research, particularly scholarship from writing studies and scholarship published in First Monday, establish why Wikipedia has captured teacher-scholars’ attention and raised important questions about knowledge making and writing.
Writing studies research
Early work in writing studies explored the potentials of Wikipedia for effective writing pedagogy. This work focused on features of Wikipedia that lend well to teaching writing, particularly audience aware and process-based writing. Carra Leah Hood (2007), for instance, asserted that Wikipedia article histories “deliver [...] a pedagogy familiar to writers and to teachers of writing [that] values writing process.”  I (2010) expanded this attention on Wikipedia’s technological affordances to discuss ways in which the four tabs of a Wikipedia article  encourage practices “involved in successfully writing a research-based text for college classes: reviewing, conversing, revising, and sharing.”  Additionally, Christine M. Tardy (2010) affirmed that assigning non-native English speaking students to write articles for Wikipedia helped them develop academic writing skills, particularly because of its public audience .
Other writing studies scholarship considered from a more theoretical perspective the benefits of Wikipedia for writing instruction. In the first book-length treatment of Wikipedia in writing studies, Lazy virtues: Teaching writing in the age of Wikipedia, Robert Cummings (2009) applied Yochai Benkler’s notion of commons-based peer production  to Wikipedia to argue it promotes “laziness.” Drawing from the open source coding community, Cummings defined laziness in positive terms. For him, Wikipedia is a productive space to teach writing because it encourages writers to balance collaborative work toward a project’s goal with individual interest and achievement . That same year (2009), based on the study of observable writing behaviors in Wikipedia that I draw upon in this article, I argued that Wikipedia “supports notions of revision, collaboration, and authority” that the discipline of writing studies “purports to value.”  I contended, therefore, that students can learn foundational tenets of composition by analyzing and writing for Wikipedia.
Later work in writing studies turned explicitly to Wikipedia’s role as an archive. For example, in the field’s second book on Wikipedia, Krista Kennedy (2016) analyzed Wikipedia’s work of textual curation. Through comparing and contrasting Wikipedia with Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopædia, she examined the potentials and problems of distributed, collaborative, and automated curation. She argued her analysis reveals that “the labor of distributed authorship” of an encyclopedia involves a “collective of humans and nonhumans” that includes “human writers, editors, publishers, coders, funding donors, and readers, [as well as ...] technological agents such as printing presses, the Web, and robots who edit, create maps, and write text.” 
Other scholarship in writing studies is more critical of Wikipedia. For instance, Leigh Gruwell (2015) lamented a gender imbalance in Wikipedia contributors, noting nearly all are male. She expressed concern that Wikipedia conventions “exclude and silence feminist ways of knowing and writing.”  Through a case study of Essjay, a frequent Wikipedia contributor who claimed to hold a Ph.D. in theology, James J. Brown, Jr. (2009) explored another problem: contributor anonymity. He asserted such anonymity is ultimately a “fiction.”  On recommendation of Wikipedia administrators, Essjay was interviewed for and cited in an article in the New Yorker (Schiff, 2006). However, Essjay ultimately was discovered not to have the credentials he claimed.
Despite such documented shortcomings, many writing studies teacher-scholars have remained optimistic about the pedagogical benefits of teaching writing with Wikipedia. They support asking students to analyze Wikipedia articles and/or to complete Wikipedia-based projects both in first-year writing courses and in disciplinary writing courses (e.g., Bridgewater, 2017; Kill, 2011; Patch, 2010; Reilly, 2011; Sweeney, 2012; Xing and Vetter, 2020; Vetter, 2020, 2018, 2013).
Research outside writing studies
Research on Wikipedia in other disciplines preceded that in writing studies. For instance, in 2003 economist Andrea Ciffolilli analyzed Wikipedia from an economic perspective, considering the low “transaction cost” of reverting vandalism and the “barriers-free” recruitment and retention of Wikipedia contributors. In 2004 Jason Krause offered Wikipedia as example of the potential of wikis to replace e-mail as a platform for collaboration among lawyers. And in 2005 Nora A. Miller considered from a semantics perspective ways in which Wikipedia challenges the notion of authorship.
Studies of Wikipedia have been prevalent in library and information science (LIS). Early LIS work even connected to writing studies. For instance, Anne-Marie Deitering and Sara Jameson (2008) discussed the role of Wikipedia in a library/writing program collaboration at Oregon State University. The collaboration’s goal was to embed information literacy instruction in first-year writing courses through use of Wikipedia.
Later LIS work extended to citation practices. In 2011, for instance, librarian Taemin Kim Park published a review of publications in the Web of Science and Scopus databases about and citing Wikipedia. Park found that from 2002–2010 Wikipedia was cited 3,679 times in publications in Web of Science and Scopus. The largest proportion of research on Wikipedia was from the United States. However, individual researchers affiliated with academic institutions in Europe and Asia published research on Wikipedia most frequently.
Other research in LIS explored questions regarding Wikipedia’s perception and use. Librarian John C. Garrison (2015), for example, conducted surveys of and focus groups with first-year college students and their instructors to determine why students use Wikipedia, how they perceive it, and who shaped these uses and perceptions. He found that students use Wikipedia mainly to find a topic and to gather background information. They chose to use it because of its perceived ease of use and breadth of information, despite admonitions from instructors, particularly from high school, regarding the quality and credibility of its articles.
Still other scholarship examined what students got out of using Wikipedia for an academic assignment (rather than why students chose to use it). In research funded by the Wikimedia Foundation’s public policy initiative, Amy Roth, Rochelle Davis, and Brian Carver (2013) similarly conducted surveys with students, interviews with students and professors, and focus groups with students. They found that students were highly engaged with Wikipedia assignments. Students liked making their writing available to a public, global audience. Students and their instructors both reported that students’ research-writing skills improved in completing a Wikipedia-based assignment. However, students indicated that their writing did not improve beyond what more traditional research-based writing assignments would do.
Project Information Literacy
Five years before Garrison (2015) and three years before Roth, et al. (2013), Project Information Literacy researchers Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg (2010) likewise conducted surveys of and focus groups with college students to learn why and how they used Wikipedia for academic research-writing tasks. Like Garrison, Head and Eisenberg found that students frequently used Wikipedia to gather background information. They reported, however, that students did not use Wikipedia in isolation for this purpose. Rather, students used Wikipedia together with other sources, including course readings and Google, which students reported using more often than Wikipedia. Head and Eisenberg also found that students chose to use Wikipedia because “it offers a mixture of coverage, currency, convenience, and comprehensibility.” 
The following year (2011), Head and Eisenberg reported on college students’ use of the Web to conduct “everyday research.”  Again, they found Wikipedia to be a go to reference. Eighty-seven percent of college students reported having used it. Students in their study shared that they did not go directly to Wikipedia, however. Rather they were directed there from Google searches where Wikipedia entries were top results. This influence was reciprocal. Students were also more likely to use search engines if they consulted Wikipedia. Wikipedia use was one of four statistically significant predictors of search engine use for “everyday research” questions. Students who used Wikipedia “were one and [one] half times more likely to use search engines than respondents who did not.”  Yet, overall Head and Eisenberg found students were more likely to consult family or friends than they were to consult Wikipedia.
Pew Research Center
The Pew Research Center has a long history of studying Wikipedia use. In 2007, for instance, Lee Rainie and Bill Tancer reported that 36 percent of American adults online, particularly well-educated and college-aged adults, consulted Wikipedia. In 2011, Kathryn Zickuhr and Lee Rainie reported that this percentage increased to 53 percent of all adults using the Internet in 2010. This percentage grew to 69 percent when considering those people who earned a college degree. Later Pew research turned to the most visited articles in different language versions of Wikipedia (Anderson, et al., 2016a) and the overall number of readers of each different language version of Wikipedia (Anderson, et al., 2016b).
Wikipedia has also published about itself. At the time of this writing, it maintains a page on “Academic studies of Wikipedia” (Wikipedia, 2019) that provides an overview of research published about it. The page links to a WikiPapers site that lists scholarly publications about Wikipedia. As of January 2020, it listed 6,246 total publications, including 1,542 journal articles and 27 books (Wikipapers Referata, 2014, “List of publications”). This list is incomplete, however. In January 2020, the most recent listings were from 2017. Later publications were absent. It also excluded some of the scholarship referenced in this article.
In 2016 the Wiki Education Foundation conducted a study regarding the use of Wikipedia in education. It attended in particular to students learning outcomes from Wikipedia-based assignments. Reporting results of 13 focus groups as well as a survey of 1,627 students and 97 instructors, Zachary J. McDowell (2017) concluded that “in addition to their value in learning digital/information literacy, critical research, teamwork, and technology skills, Wikipedia-based assignments also help increase students’ motivation to complete work over traditional writing assignments.”  In their article “From opportunities to outcomes: The Wikipedia-based writing assignment,” Matthew A. Vetter, McDowell, and Mahala Stewart (2019) reviewed results from this survey pertinent to writing teachers. They noted that many of the results confirmed prior writing studies research, including that instructors and students generally found Wikipedia-based assignments more valuable than traditional paper assignments . In its own blog post on the survey findings (Davis, 2017), Wiki Ed touted Wikipedia as an effective resource for teaching students information literacy. It reported that 96 percent of instructors taking the survey indicated that using a Wikipedia assignment was “more or much more valuable” than assigning traditional papers for teaching students critical digital literacy.
Taken together, this scholarship provides insight into who uses Wikipedia and for what purposes, when and how students use Wikipedia, as well as when and how teachers (can) use Wikipedia to teach process writing and information literacy. It also offers insight into how frequently Wikipedia articles are cited in scholarly publications as well as how many articles are produced and read across the different language versions of Wikipedia. What these studies have yet to do is examine the writing that comprises Wikipedia articles. This article seeks to fill that gap.
The corpus for this study included all versions of the archive, design, and writing articles from 2012–2014. I selected these articles because I analyzed the same articles in my prior study (2009). As I noted in that study, I selected these three articles for three reasons: “First, each had a fairly extensive history for me to examine. Second, each included contributions from a variety of author-users. Third, these articles are germane to my scholarly interests.”  This approach allowed for comparing and contrasting results. From 2012–2014 the archive article included 110 versions, the design article included 311 versions, and the writing article included 392 versions — for a total of 813 versions across all three articles.
For the purposes of this study, observable writing activities coded for included adding, deleting, organizing, and formatting content; adding, deleting, and fixing hyperlinks; editing; and vandalizing and reverting vandalism. Definitions of these activities are provided in Table 1. When new article versions did not have any visible writing changes (e.g., when a disambiguation or redirect was added), the activity was classified as “Unchanged.” This list is not comprehensive but covers the major writing activities that characterize the articles studied.
Table 1: Writing changes coded for in Wikipedia study. Category Description Adding content Including new words, sentences, paragraphs, or design elements (e.g., images) Deleting content Removing existing words, sentences, paragraphs, or design elements Organizing content Changing the order of existing words, sentences, paragraphs, or design elements; grouping these elements into sections Formatting content Changing the appearance (e.g., type size, font style) of existing words, sentences, paragraphs, or design elements Adding hyperlinks Converting existing words or phrases to hyperlinks, adding hyperlinked words to a “see also” section Deleting hyperlinks Removing existing hyperlinks Fixing hyperlinks Redirecting misdirected hyperlinks to the correct page Editing Fixing typographical errors, making minor sentence-level spelling and grammar corrections Vandalism Sabotaging pages (e.g., by including profanity or sexual references) Reverting vandalism Removing vandalism
These categories were determined through emergent coding. I began with the list of observable writing behaviors from my prior study and added to and revised this list based on what I found as I analyzed the 2012–2014 corpus. For example, though I did not find evidence of vandalism and reverting vandalism in my prior study, I quickly found that I needed to add those categories for this study.
Wikipedia archives all previous versions of its articles and allows these versions to be compared. Using its “diff” feature highlights differences between articles, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: “Diff” feature of Wikipedia showing content changes between two versions of the writing article in 2014.
Coding, then, entailed determining which of the categories listed in Table 1 the highlighted material illustrated. Some changes included more than one activity (e.g., both adding content and adding hyperlinks) . Figure 2 shows example spreadsheet entries recoding this data for writing article versions.
Figure 2: Example spreadsheet entries for Wikipedia’s writing article.
I followed the same procedure for this study as I did in my previous study. To identify specific writing activities, I did not double code. For example, I did not double code adding hyperlinks as both adding content and adding hyperlinks, unless the link was part of a more extensive contribution. Likewise, I did not double code deleting hyperlinks as both deleting content and deleting hyperlinks. Similarly, I also did not double count vandalizing and reverting vandalism as adding and deleting content, respectively. When research assistants helped with the coding, we normed a sample set of article content together to ensure their coding matched my own.
Results and discussion
This study found that writing activity in Wikipedia’s archive, design, and writing articles from 2012–2014 focused most on adding and deleting content, followed by vandalizing and reverting vandalism. Organizing, formatting, and editing existing content were far less common. As shown in Figure 3, which provides the rank order of these writing activities across all three articles, there were 276 instances of content addition followed by 235 instances of content deletion. That means nearly ¼ of all 1,141 writing changes (24.2 percent) were adding material and about ⅕ of all changes (20.6 percent) were deleting material. This data shows additions of content were nearly balanced by deletions of content. Approximately 85 percent of additions (235 of 276) were accompanied by a deletion, often of the same content. This result suggests that articles lengthened over time, but they did not grow unchecked.
Figure 4 breaks down these results for each article for 2012–2014:
The next most frequent changes involved vandalism. For all articles, there were 158 instances of vandalism (13.8 percent) and 144 instances of vandalism reversion (12.6 percent). This data shows that the pairing of addition and deletion activities was particularly true of vandalistic activity. Across all three articles, vandalism was reverted 91.1 percent of the time (in 144 of 158 instances). For the archive article, all five instances of vandalism (100 percent) were reverted. These findings suggest that contributors were vigilant in undoing vandalism. However, a few instances of vandalism snuck through or were ultimately revised rather than simply deleted.
Other than unchanged, the least frequent changes were organizing content, with 21 instances (1.8 percent), and formatting content, with 25 instances (2.2 percent). This finding suggests contributors paid comparatively little attention to the readability and presentation of articles. They concentrated most on inserting and removing content. Editing was not a prevalent writing activity either. It accounted for only 8.4 percent (96 of 1,141) of all changes. This result suggests that, despite popular perception otherwise, the writing that happens in Wikipedia is more substantive than just sentence-level correction. Indeed, articles might benefit from more editing for clarity, consistency, and concision.
Though the total number of changes for each article varied, the percentages of total changes for some types of writing activities were similar across articles. Table 2 shows that the writing article had the most writing changes of all three articles, followed by the design article, then the archive article. Yet the relative weight of content addition remained consistent across all three articles. Content addition comprised 27.1 percent of the total changes for the archive article, 24.1 percent of the total changes for the design article, and 23.4 percent of the total changes for the writing article.
Table 2: Number and percentage of changes in Wikipedia’s archive, design, and writing articles, 2012–2014. Types of changes Archive Percentage Design Percentage Writing Percentage Adding content 44 27.1 96 24.1 136 23.4 Deleting content 25 15.4 90 22.6 120 20.7 Organizing content 2 1.2 4 1.0 15 2.6 Formatting content 5 3.1 13 3.3 7 1.2 Adding hyperlinks 29 17.9 28 7.0 28 4.8 Deleting hyperlinks 13 8.0 11 2.8 19 3.3 Fixing hyperlinks 9 5.6 14 3.5 19 3.3 Editing 25 15.4 33 8.3 38 6.6 Unchanged 0 0 9 2.3 7 1.2 Vandalizing 5 3.1 53 13.3 100 17.2 Reverting vandalism 5 3.1 48 12.0 91 15.7 Total 162 399 580
However, there was some variance across articles. For example, deleting content tied with editing for the third, rather than second, most frequent writing activity for the archive article. Another additive activity, adding hyperlinks, came in second for the archive article, reinforcing the prevalence of contributors’ additive activities. Vandalizing and reverting vandalizing, though still present, also accounted for a smaller percentage of changes for the archive article (3.1 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively) than for the writing (17.2 percent and 15.7 percent, respectively) and design articles (13.3 percent and 12.0 percent, respectively).
Still, addition and deletion dominated writing activities across the articles. When considering all additive activities (adding content, adding hyperlinks, and vandalizing) together and all reductive activities (deleting content, deleting hyperlinks, and reverting vandalism) together, 82.5 percent of all writing changes (941 instances) involved inserting or removing content. See Figure 5. In turn, only 16.1 percent of all changes (184 instances) involved organizing, formatting, or editing existing material. This finding suggests that contributors focused most on adding and removing material and paid little attention to shaping and presenting it.
Comparison and contrast of findings
Between 2002–2004 and 2012–2014 several aspects of the writing in these three Wikipedia articles changed, especially regarding the amount of overall writing and the amount of vandalism. After the top activity, adding content, the rankings were different. Table 3 provides the total instances of each writing activity across all three articles in 2002–2004 and 2012–2014 as well as their respective ranks. The Appendix provides the totals for each individual article for both time periods.
Table 3: Number and rank of observable writing changes across Wikipedia’s archive, design, and writing, 2002–2004 and 2012–2014. Types of changes 2012–2014 total 2012–2014 rank 2002–2004 total 2002–2004 rank Adding content 276 1 52 1 Deleting content 235 2 25 3 Vandalizing 158 3 0 10 (tie) Reverting vandalism 144 4 0 10 (tie) Editing 96 5 20 4 (tie) Adding hyperlinks 85 6 51 2 Deleting hyperlinks 43 7 9 9 Fixing hyperlinks 42 8 13 8 Formatting content 25 9 20 4 (tie) Organizing content 21 10 16 6 Unchanged 16 11 14 7 Total 1,141 220
More writing activity
Comparing and contrasting the 2012–2014 results with those from 2002–2004 reveals more writing activity in 2012–2014. As shown in Table 3, there were significantly more observable writing changes across all three articles from 2012–2014 than there were from 2002–2004: 1,141 contrasted with 220 — an over fivefold increase. This finding indicates that more writing happened in the articles from 2012–2014; the articles were more active.
The length of articles and number of references also illustrate this increased writing activity. At the end of 2004, the archive, design, and writing articles were 18, 6, and 42 lines long (not including “see also” links), respectively. They had 0 references. While these articles included links to further reading, none included citations or bibliographies. At the end of 2014, however, the archive, design, and writing articles were 145, 178, and 210 lines long (not including references and “see also” links), respectively — significant increases in length over 10 years earlier. Moreover, the articles had 43, 16, and 24 references, respectively, illustrating increased efforts to cite content. Articles were both longer and more referenced.
This increased writing activity can be measured in another way: number of contributors. From 2002–2004 there were 98 different contributors to the archive, design, and writing articles. The number of contribution sessions (i.e., distinct log-ins as recorded on the View history tab) for each contributor ranged from 1 to 15 . From 2012–2014 there were 492 different contributors to the archive, design, and writing articles. The number of sessions for each contributor ranged from 1 to 37. These statistics demonstrate that articles were always the result of collaborative efforts. However, five times as many contributors participated in the development of articles from 2012–2014. Many more writers were engaged in the production of the texts.
This study also found that vandalism was prevalent in 2012–2014 while it was not present in 2002–2004. Though nearly all vandalism was reverted (often in the next change to the article), there was a significant increase in irrelevant and disruptive writing activity in 2012–2014. In my previous study (2009), because Wikipedia author-users had explicitly identified vandalism as a prevalent problem, I initially included vandalizing and de-vandalizing as categories for coding. However, I ultimately removed these codes because I did not find evidence of such activity. This was not the case with the current study. While I started without the vandalizing and de-vandalizing coding categories to replicate the coding scheme from the previous study, I quickly had to add them because of the prevalence of these activities. They were too frequent to ignore. As shown in Table 3, vandalizing and reverting vandalism were the third and fourth most prevalent writing activities from 2012–2014.
Perhaps my enthusiasm for Wikipedia in the early 2000s led me to hold a narrower conception of vandalism or to read more generously and, therefore, to miscode. Nonetheless, this finding suggests that more contributors in 2012–2014 focused less on the appropriateness of their content for a reference source. They took more advantage of Wikipedia’s affordance to publish unmediated to a publicly changeable text.
Even less attention to formatting and organizing
Formatting and organizing content became even less frequent proportionally in 2012–2014. Only 25 instances of formatting were found from 2012–2014. This number of instances is slightly more than in 2002–2004, when there were only 20 instances. However, formatting comprised only 2.2 percent of all changes in 2012–2014, whereas it comprised 9 percent of all changes from 2002–2004. This finding suggests that contributors focused more on the content of articles rather than how it was presented, a tendency that grew over the years.
The numbers were even lower for organizing content. In 2012–2014 there were only 21 instances of organizing content, an increase of 5 from 2002–2004, when there were 16 instances. However, organization’s percentage of all changes fell from 7.3 percent in 2002–2004 to 1.8 percent in 2012–2014. This finding echoes the results of Fernanda B. Viégas and Martin Wattenberg’s visualization studies that likewise found content organization in Wikipedia articles to be “rare” (Heer, et al., 2010). This result suggests that attention to adding and deleting content did not carry over into structuring that content.
Continued content addition
Several aspects of the articles, however, remained unchanged from 2002–2004 to 2012–2014. Though there was more writing activity overall in 2012–2014, content addition remained the most prevalent change. Both in raw numbers and proportionally, content addition was the most frequent writing activity in the three articles from 2012–2014 and from 2002–2004. Nearly ¼ of all changes (24.2 percent, or 276 of 1,141) from 2012–2014 and 23.6 percent of all changes (52 of 220) from 2002–2004 comprised adding material to the articles. This finding suggests an overall focus of Wikipedia contributors on growing article content, on making articles longer.
Also the same after ten years was that most contributors changed articles just once. Revision happened in the aggregate. Approximately ¾ of participants contributed only once to an article. In 2002–2004, 74.5 percent of contributors across all three articles (73 of 98) had only one contribution session. Similarly, in 2012–2014, 75.8 percent of contributors across all three articles (373 of 492) logged in only once to make changes. That most participants contributed only once illustrates sustained writing activity by only a handful of writers. Most participants did not return to their own contributions to revise them. This finding suggests that while ongoing revision continued to characterize the archive, design, and writing articles, contributors focused on the writing of others rather than their own writing. That is, they did not revise what they wrote but rather what others wrote. Revision was exterior rather than interior facing.
This study provides insight into what observable writing behaviors characterize Wikipedia, the world’s most popular online reference source, and ways in which these activities evolved over time. It reveals that in 2012–2014 the archive, design, and writing articles were characterized, as compared to 10 years earlier, by more writing activity, more vandalism, and less attention to formatting and organizing content. Frequent content addition and single contributor visits remained common.
The most significant change in 2012–2014 was the prevalence of vandalism and reverting vandalism, activities not found in in 2002–2004. Thus, further studies might investigate what caused this uptick in vandalism and what it suggests about commons-based peer production and the creation and circulation of knowledge. Future studies might also examine what is lost when contributors spend so much effort reverting vandalism rather than making other types of writing contributions that may be needed (e.g., organizing content).
This study is limited by its small sample size and convenience sampling. Definitive conclusions about the writing of all Wikipedia articles cannot be drawn from studying only three articles. Articles on different kinds of topics (e.g., celebrities, events) might also yield different results. Still, this study’s results are valuable in providing empirical data on the writing contributors do in Wikipedia, a research resource with enormous influence. This study reveals what characterizes writing on three Wikipedia articles as well as ways in which those contributions have changed as Wikipedia has grown, aged, and become more instantiated in education at all levels.
This study, therefore, can inform ways in which instructors use Wikipedia as a tool for teaching writing. Part of the thesis of my 2009 study was that the writing that happens in Wikipedia illustrates notions of revision and collaboration that the discipline of writing studies purports to value. The results of this current study suggest that this thesis remains true — with some important caveats that I explain in this next section of conclusion. This study reaffirms that Wikipedia article creation depends on revision and collaboration. However, the revision and collaboration that occurred in the articles studied was limited. Writing instruction using Wikipedia, then, would benefit from offering richer approaches to these concepts — in particular, revision that involves more than addition and deletion and collaboration that involves conversation rather than just reversion.
Because Wikipedia articles evolve over time, they model that writing is never finished. This is an important lesson for developing (and experienced) writers. It illustrates a crucial tenet of the process movement in writing studies. Yet, this study found that, in general, revision of the archive, design, and writing articles was additive and subtractive rather than organizational. Contributors focused on adding content, removing content, vandalizing, and reverting vandalism rather than shaping and polishing. This finding reinforces what John Jones (2008) found in his study of Wikipedia articles under consideration to be featured: content addition was more frequent than organization . Though the articles studied for this project improved over time in terms of their elaboration of a subject and references to sources, this elaboration and source use was not necessarily integrated seamlessly into the articles. They suffered from a lack of attention to overall readability.
Thus, this study suggests that when course assignments are built around Wikipedia, we would do well to instruct students to focus more on organizing, formatting, and even editing article content for coherence and easier reading. Or, in terms of the classical rhetorical canons, such instruction needs to address arrangement and delivery . Student contributors should be measured not just by how much new content they add to an article but also by how they integrate this content into an article and improve its coherence, organization, and readability. Such work might include adding headings, constructing a table of contents, defining terms and referents, creating a consistent voice across paragraphs, and providing clear introductory sentences for paragraphs.
More broadly, we need to teach students the range of activities involved in revision. Instruction on revision — of any text, not just Wikipedia articles — needs to address revision as entailing reorganizing, designing, and correcting per the conventions of the genre and rhetorical situation. We need to help students see revision as more than just adding and cutting. Though these activities are necessary, they are not sufficient.
This study also supports that the writing, design, and archive articles were undeniably collaborative productions, even more so from 2012–2014. Many contributors worked together to write the articles. They responded to prior changes by adding and deleting content. The significant increase in vandalism, however, illustrates that not all contributors worked toward a common goal of creating the best reference article. Some valued individualistic intentions (e.g., shocking, disrupting) over the stated purpose of Wikipedia. This finding can be an important lesson regarding collaborative work more generally: not all contributors will do as they are told. Collaboration is not an unmitigated good. Participants, however, can work together to solve problems.
Thus, again, if we are going to continue to teach writing with Wikipedia, that instruction should include strategies for collaborating successfully, particularly with unknown others. We might, for example, ask students to read and contribute to a Wikipedia article’s Talk page, where contributors can explain, defend, and negotiate changes. More generally, writing instruction should prepare students to work as part of collaborative teams. Even “individual” textual productions receive feedback from others (e.g., teachers, writing center consultants, bosses, readers, users) so entail cooperation . Thus, we would do well to teach students strategies for explaining their changes as well as giving and responding to feedback.
In addition to writing instructors, this study also has implications for Wikipedia contributors. Results of this study support that participants in Wikipedia article creation have productively added and referenced article content and eliminated vandalism. However, to further improve Wikipedia articles, contributors should spend more time organizing, designing, and correcting content. Articles would benefit from more attention to their presentation and structure. To accomplish this goal, contributors should consider visiting more than once the articles to which they contribute. Part of these return visits should entail revising for coherent, unified content.
This study likewise has implications for Wikipedia itself. Wikipedia administrators already provide notices on articles to signal the need for additional, more balanced, or more referenced content. These reminders are helpful guides for ways in which contributors should participate. Administrators might also offer additional guidance on how to revise, for instance, indicating explicitly that contributors should attend to the structure and/or style of an article as a whole. Wikipedia reward structures might also recognize such contributions. For instance, the “good edit history” required for a participant to become a Wikipedia administrator  could include or even require organizing, formatting, and editing article content (in addition to adding to and deleting from it).
Finally, this study reminds us that knowledge accretion has responsibilities. Much like content of the Internet as a whole, Wikipedia, as shown by the prevalence of content addition and vandalism in the articles studied, continues to grow. We are a society motivated to produce new knowledge. However, we would also do well to organize and shape it. We need to care for the texts freely circulating online after we make them available.
About the author
James P. Purdy, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of English/Writing Studies and University Writing Center Director at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa. His most recent books are The effects of intellectual property law in writing studies: Ethics, sponsors, and academic knowledge-making (Routledge, 2020), co-authored with Karen J. Lunsford, and Making space: Writing instruction, infrastructure, and multiliteracies (University of Michigan Press, 2017), co-edited with Dànielle Nicole DeVoss.
E-mail: purdyj [at] duq [dot] edu
Special thanks to Marla Anzalone and John Hadlock, two capable research assistants from Duquesne University who helped with data coding for this project.
1. Domocos (2018) reported Wikipedia to have 5.33 billion monthly visits, about 12.66 billion less than reported by Anderson, Hitlin, and Atkinson (2016b). It is not clear why these numbers are different or what accounts for this decline in monthly visits from 2016 to 2018. Despite this difference, it is clear that monthly traffic to Wikipedia is well into the billions.
2. James, 2014, p. 47, emphasis in original. In her study, James found that 67 percent of tweens and 72 percent of teens and young adults indicated that they used Wikipedia for school assignments (p. 48).
3. Frequent contributors to Wikipedia can become Wikipedia administrators with additional privileges. They can block users from posting or freeze articles to prevent vandalism. This status is ultimately a reward for contributing and is, in some sense, a form of cultural capital. However, it is one few users get to enjoy.
4. Bazerman (2002) defined writing studies as “the study of writing — its production, its circulation, its uses, its roles in the development of individuals and societies, and its learning by individuals, social collectives, and historically emergent cultures [, ... i]nquiry into the skills, practices, objects and consequences of reading and writing” (p. 32).
5. For clarity I italicize the names of the Wikipedia articles I analyzed.
6. For a more comprehensive review of writing studies scholarship on Wikipedia, see Vetter, et al., 2019.
7. Hood, 2007, “Wikipedia in composition,” paragraph 2.
8. At the time I published the essay (2010), the tabs of a Wikipedia article were titled “Article,” “Discussion,” “Edit this page,” and “History.”
9. Purdy, 2010, p. 206.
10. Tardy, 2010, pp. 13, 18.
11. Benkler and Nissenbaum (2006) defined commons-based peer production as a “socio-technical system” of “collaboration among large groups of individuals, sometimes in the order of tens or even hundreds of thousands, who cooperate effectively to provide information, knowledge or cultural goods without relying on either market pricing or managerial hierarchies to coordinate their common enterprise” (p. 394).
12. Cummings, 2009, pp. 4, 6.
13. Purdy, 2009, p. W351.
14. Kennedy, 2016, p. 3.
15. Gruwell, 2015, pp. 117, 125. This concern echoed similar critiques by Wadewitz (2013) and Lam, et al. (2011).
16. Brown, 2009, p. W239.
17. Head and Eisenberg, 2010, “Abstract.”
18. Head and Eisenberg, 2011, “Introduction.”
19. Head and Eisenberg, 2011, “Ubiquitous.”
20. McDowell, 2017, p. 1.
21. Vetter, et al., 2019, p. 59.
22. Purdy, 2009, p. W366.
23. The following data were also recorded for each article version:
- Date and time of the contribution(s)
- Author of the contribution(s)
- URL of the article version
- Location and description of the contribution(s) (i.e., where in the article it occurred and what the contribution entailed).
24. Contributors sometimes made multiple changes during a single contribution session. This statistic measures the number of separate instances when contributors selected an article’s “Edit” tab to make changes, not the total number of observable writing changes they made during each writing session.
25. Jones (2008) discovered that the Wikipedia articles that were ultimately selected to be featured were those that attended more to surface-level corrections rather than content-level changes. This finding challenges writing studies’ proclamation that “higher quality” writing results from greater attention to global revision. In other words, what Wikipedia recognized as “higher quality” writing — in other words, the articles it chose to feature — were articles focused more on sentence-level editing. In this current study, neither global-level nor local-level revision were prevalent.
26. Aristotle’s five canons of rhetoric include invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.
27. Writing studies scholar Howard (2001) included this kind of interaction as a form of collaboration (pp. 58–59).
28. Wikipedia, 2020. “Wikipedia:FAQ/Administration,” 4 May 2020, “How can I become.”
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Appendix: Number of observable writing changes for Wikipedia’s archive, design, and writing articles, 2012–2014 and 2002–2004.
Table 4: Comparison of observable writing changes in Wikipedia’s archive article. Types of changes Changes in 2012–2014 Changes in 2002–2004 Adding content 44 12 Deleting content 25 6 Organizing content 2 5 Formatting content 5 5 Adding hyperlinks 29 11 Deleting hyperlinks 13 1 Fixing hyperlinks 9 6 Editing 25 3 Unchanged 0 1 Vandalizing 5 0 Reverting vandalism 5 0 Total 162 41
Table 5: Comparison of observable writing changes in Wikipedia’s design article. Types of changes Changes in 2012–2014 Changes in 2002–2004 Adding content 96 16 Deleting content 90 11 Organizing content 4 4 Formatting content 13 11 Adding hyperlinks 28 20 Deleting hyperlinks 11 6 Fixing hyperlinks 14 2 Editing 33 6 Unchanged 9 10 Vandalizing 53 0 Reverting vandalism 48 0 Total 399 86
Table 6: Comparison of observable writing changes in Wikipedia’s writing article. Types of changes Changes in 2012–2014 Changes in 2002–2004 Adding content 136 24 Deleting content 120 8 Organizing content 15 7 Formatting content 7 4 Adding hyperlinks 28 20 Deleting hyperlinks 19 2 Fixing hyperlinks 19 5 Editing 38 11 Unchanged 7 3 Vandalizing 100 0 Reverting vandalism 91 0 Total 580 93
Received 26 June 2020; revised 30 July 2020; accepted 30 July 2020.
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
A decade of writing on Wikipedia: A comparative study of three articles
by James P. Purdy.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 9 - 7 September 2020