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Getting started with Wikipedia

Published by Alison Moore

This blog post was contributed by Graeme Robinson-Clogg, a former SFU Reference Librarian

Why contribute to Wikipedia in 2020?

Wikipedia is one of the most widely used information sources online, thanks to its millions of articles on thousands of topics. These articles often find their way to the top of most search results and regularly form the answers to questions asked of virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa. However, while it is true that Wikipedia is a powerful player in the online information market, it has relatively little in common with the other top-10 most popular websites in the world, which include Google and Facebook. Unlike these well-funded and highly staffed tech firms, Wikipedia, and its parent organization Wikimedia, is non-profit, has a fraction of the number of employees, and relies on grants and donations to maintain its operations.

While Wikipedia’s business model has cast some doubt on the organization’s long-term financial viability, the benefits of the organization's independent, non-commercial model are clear. With no ads on the site, Wikipedia is better able to remain independent of the expectations of external funders, helping to preserve the neutrality of its content. But while organizational finances may no longer pose an imminent threat, Wikipedia’s future does depend on the continued engagement of its volunteer contributors.

These contributors work collaboratively behind the scenes of each Wikipedia article, adding content and making revisions. But what exactly motivates these contributors to volunteer their time? For some, the challenge of writing for a broad audience can itself be rewarding, particularly on topics that may otherwise be inaccessible due to their complex subject matter. Correcting errors in articles, finding supporting references, and filling gaps in subject area coverage serve as compelling incentives for other Wikipedia contributors to work on the improvement of the platform’s content. This is particularly important for contributors belonging to the academic community, who not only have access to high quality scholarly information that can provide a foundation for a reliable article, but also the subject area expertise necessary to make more complex topics accessible to a large audience.

Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that Wikipedia can and should be edited by anyone, even if they are not an expert. All that is required of a Wikipedia contributor is a willingness to engage with a topic and a desire to share knowledge with others. Getting started is easy, and requires only a few simple steps!

How do you contribute to Wikipedia?

If you’re interested in contributing to Wikipedia, you can actually start editing pages without even setting up an account. Simply find an article you’d like to improve, click on the edit tab, make a change, and click submit. Wikipedia has always allowed anonymous users to make edits to articles, striving to remove as many barriers to user participation as possible, and a substantial number of contributions to the site are made without accounts. However, creating an account does have a number of benefits, ranging from the ability to create new articles to greater privacy and more tools to keep track of your contributions.                                   

Although it’s important to stress that the barriers to editing Wikipedia are lower than many might believe, there are a few guidelines to consider that can have a positive effect on your contribution experience. Perhaps the most important of these is to be clear about what changes you are making. You can describe your changes you are making to an article in what’s called an edit summary. While these descriptions aren’t required, even writing a brief summary of the changes you’ve made will help other users understand the motivations behind your contributions.

Another important principle to keep in mind when editing Wikipedia is that, ideally, contributions should be supported by published and verifiable sources. Including references to other works helps users prove the notability of topics, the neutral tone of articles, and the accuracy of included information.

In addition to these major guidelines, there are of course a large number of additional rules, policies, and recommendations that have been developed over the course of Wikipedia’s lifespan. While undeniably important, the sheer number of these rules, as well as the many ways they can be interpreted, can often be overwhelming for new and seasoned Wikipedia contributors alike.

Ready to get started?

To help empower new users to start contributing to the platform, Wikipedia has two other rules that bear consideration: “ignore all rules” and “be bold.” The first of these rules was created in an attempt to mitigate the effects the daunting number of rules may have on a well-intentioned newcomer (though should not be read as license to ignore community consensus). The second of these rules is similarly designed to empower contributors to make changes they believe will improve the encyclopedia, and not hesitate for fear of making a mistake.

Additional information

If you’re interested in becoming an editor, be bold and make an edit. Whether you are creating a new article from scratch, or correcting a grammatical mistake, know that with each edit brings Wikipedia one step closer to being a more comprehensive and authoritative source of free information for the world to share.

For information about getting started with Wikipedia, visit the Getting Started guide.