For collaborative working to succeed, the contributors need to get on well together. But is that so easy when people are working online? If you take Wikipedia as an example, you would think so.

Internet-Based Online Collaboration Usually Quite Peaceable

Close to 99% of the articles on Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, are written in what is called "smooth" collaboration, i.e. there is no animosity among the various contributors with regard to the content of the article concerned. Contributors tend to work constructively and just correct any minor errors so that the outcome is a consensual article, rather than embarking on "edit wars", researchers at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics have found. They see this as a significant sign that people are able to collaborate successfully via the new social media, and that this creates many opportunities for handling tasks which are especially large and/or complex. The findings are based on an analysis of a sample of no less than 233,000 articles and associated discussion pages which were available for consultation in January 2010. In order to identify contentious articles, the researchers used two criteria.


Looking for contentious articles


First of all, they looked at the length of the discussion pages, as the more severe the conflict, the longer the discussion page is expected to be. Secondly, the researchers analysed the number of “reverts” per article, “reverting” referring to any action that in whole or in part reverses the actions of other editors. The researchers started out from the principle that the more an article has been reworked the more likely it is to be contentious. However, this criterion is not in itself conclusive. Although Wikipedia’s voluntary editors try their best to limit reverting by following a code of conduct and blocking or banning users who engage in “edit wars”, some articles are still “vandalised” by readers, sometimes using spamming techniques and bots. Given that frequently-read articles make prime targets, it’s not surprising that they are often subject to reverts. So in order to refine their research, the Budapest team used only articles which showed a revert pattern basically involving two people. From this selection process, they discovered that out of the 233,000 articles chosen at the start, less than one hundred demonstrated these characteristics and so might well have been the battleground for an "edit war".


The impact of culture and recent events


These controversial articles showed a number of similarities, among them the fact that they involve sensitive subjects such as homosexuality (especially for the English language version of the Wikipedia page), religion, and conflicts such as the political standoff over the Liancourt Rocks, a group of small islets in the Sea of Japan whose sovereignty is disputed between Japan and South Korea. But these are not the only examples. The researchers also spotted controversy over less thorny subjects such as pumpkins and Benjamin Franklin. Controversy also varies according to culture. For instance, the Spanish pages are particularly virulent on articles about football and neither Germans nor Hungarians like to use the discussion pages to comment on errors in articles. The researchers also found that most "edit wars" flare up when a new event arises relating to the topic of the article, rather than as a result of disagreement with the original text.