For better and worse, Wikipedia is one of the places most of us go to when we want definitive information on a topic. But a recent scandal is highlighting one of the major pitfalls of the platform: not every Wikipedia editor is an expert in their field.
Earlier in the week, a Reddit user named Ultach detailed a discovery they made about the Scots language version of Wikipedia (via The Guardian). Alongside Gaelic, Scots is one of the indigenous languages of Scotland. The thousands of Wikipedia entries written in it make up one of the largest collections of the Scots language you can access online for free. The problem is an American teenager from North Carolina — who can't speak the language — wrote 49 percent of all the entries.
Before Ultach discovered the teen, who had gone by the username AmaryllisGardner, they had been prolific. By 2018, the 19-year-old had written more than 20,000 entries and committed approximately 200,000 edits. They were able to write so much by starting at the age of 12. The majority of entries AmaryllisGardner penned feature the occasional Scots word, often misspelled, and they include no Scots grammatical constructions. It seems AmaryllisGardner used an online translator to graft Scots words onto sentences written in American English.
Part of the reason no one noticed or stopped the vandalism is that there wasn't much interest in the Scots Wikipedia before this week. "Nobody cared about maintaining [the Scots Wikipedia]," said Wikipedian MJL, one of the website's administrators. "Someone stepped up because no one else did. That person was never given any guidance. Articles ended up being very poorly mistranslated."
The issue is twofold. Scots is an endangered language, and the Wikipedia community now needs to decide what to do with all the entries. Some have said the website should delete AmaryllisGardner's contributions, arguing that they do more harm than good. But Michael Dempster, the director of the Scots Language Centre in Perth, says it would be better to salvage the contributions.
"We know that this kid has put in an incredible amount of work, and he has created an editable infrastructure," he told The Guardian. "It's a great resource but it needs people who are literate in Scots to edit it now. It has the potential to be a great online focus for the language in the future."
Another unfortunate outcome of all this is that people have taken to harassing the teen, despite the fact it seems like they had good intentions in contributing to the Wiki. "I was only a 12-year-old kid when I started, and sometimes when you start something young, you can't see that the habit you've developed is unhealthy and unhelpful as you get older," they said on Wikipedia.
As the AV Club points out, the entire episode is a reminder that Wikipedia is not a perfect resource. The website and all the information you can find on it wouldn't exist without the tireless work of countless unnamed volunteers, but those people can make mistakes. The Scots example is an extreme case, but every entry you read on the website (and any other website, for that matter) is worth scrutiny.