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Which Wikipedia Topics Are Most Controversial?
Posted July 18, 2013
Which Wikipedia Topics Are Most Controversial?
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By Barry Levine. Updated July 18, 2013 2:14PM

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The back-and-forth changes between some Wikipedia entries for famous people or events are only the tip of the iceberg. According to researchers who have investigated the popular, crowd-sourced online encyclopedia, some Wikipedia topics change back and forth with the frequency of the borders of some European countries in the early 20th century.

The researchers, from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and three other institutions, looked at logs of changes made to various entries to determine the most frequently revised subjects.

"Our results indicate that Wikipedia is more than just an encyclopedia," the researchers said in a summary of their research. It is also, they said, "a window into convergent and divergent social-spatial priorities, interests and preferences."

The trick was to find which topics were the most controversial, not simply those that changed frequently. Determining the most controversial topics is no small feat, given that Wikipedia has about 77,000 contributors to more than 22 million entries in 285 languages.

Not Just Frequent Changes

Frequent changes could simply indicate that the topic has frequent updates, such as the political uprisings in the Arab world. But the degree to which revisions were then revised could determine controversy and the passion of the participants. The analysis looked at millions of articles from 10 language versions of Wikipedia.

The researchers also grouped the 10 languages into three main sets, with English, German, French, Spanish in one group, and a second group containing Czech, Hungarian, and Romanian. Arabic, Persian and Hebrew were in a third group.

To determine the most intense edit wars, Taha Yasseri of the University of Oxford and his team focused on "mutual reverts," meaning that one editor thoroughly revised the changes done by another. The team decided that it could determine the controversiality of an article by "summing the weights of all mutually reverting editor pairs, excluding the topmost pair, and multiplying this number by the total number of editors involved in the article."

The Falklands and Romanian Soccer

Using the "mutual reverts" metric, the research team was able to determine the top 10 most controversial topics across the 10 language editions. In order, they were: George W. Bush, anarchism, the prophet Muhammed, the list of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. employees, global warming, circumcision, the United States, Jesus, race and intelligence, and Christianity.

Articles relating to anti-Semitism and Israel, such as Israel itself, Adolf Hitler or the Holocaust, were the subject of edit wars in all three language sets, for instance, while some topics are highly controversial only in one language or language set, such as the article about the Falkland Islands/the Islas Malvinas in the Spanish version of Wikipedia. For French editors, an article about the French politician Segolene Royal was the subject of much editorial fighting, and Romanians fought over information about the Universitatea Craiova soccer club.

In the next version of their research, the team will look at how editorial wars proceed over time. No indication yet why the list of the World Wrestling Entertainment employees would be so controversial, across different languages.

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