In what was surely one of the world’s more irritating class assignments, University of Toronto psychology professor Steve Joordens encouraged the 1,900 students in his introductory psychology course to start using what they learned in class to add to Wikipedia articles.

Many Wikipedia editors found this troublesome. According to a piece in The Canadian Press:

Joordens’s plan backfired when the relatively small contingent of volunteer editors that curate the website’s content began sounding alarm bells. They raised concerns about the sheer number of contributions pouring in from people who were not necessarily well-versed in the topic or adept at citing their research.

Discussions in the Wikipedia community became very heated with allegations that articles were being updated with erroneous or plagiarized information. Some community members called for widespread bans on university IP addresses and decried the professor’s assignment as a needless burden on the community.

Joordens said he didn’t really understand the problem; only 33 of the 910 psychology articles apparently edited by University of Toronto students were tagged for potential problems.

Well yes, but just because the articles weren’t tagged doesn’t mean the content was good. A more common reaction to the introduction of bad content is for editors just to delete it.

The bigger problem with the assignment may have been that Joordens just didn’t understand how Wikipedia works. More than 488 million people visit the online encyclopedia every month. But Joordens was surprised to discovered that there are really only few thousand members who edit the pages. “I assumed that the current core of editors was extremely large and that the introduction of up to 1000 new editors would be seen as a positive,” Joordens explained.

Well it would be positive if your class assignment resulted in 1000 new good editors. If 1000 new inexperienced contributors result in a lot of “erroneous or plagiarized information,” that’s a nightmare for established Wikipedia editors.

This is, however, just how Wikipedia works. A passionate new editor contributing a lot of content without really understanding how process works is a normal part of the editing; that’s just Wikipedia entries evolve. It’s annoying, but there’s no problem here. [Image via]

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer