How quickly are errors corrected?

To find out how quickly Wikipedia’s crack volunteers respond to errors or deliberate vandalism, two PC Pro operatives introduced deliberate errors into ten entries, ranging from composer Edward Elgar to the GeForce 8 Series to West Ham Utd FC. The errors varied between bleeding obvious and deftly subtle, and we left basic edit summaries noting our “corrections” in the hope our entries would blend in.

Impressively, all but one of our efforts were thwarted within an hour. In fact, within 20 minutes an eagle-eyed editor had spotted one change, tracked it back to an IP address and eliminated the other four changes by that address with the note “identified as vandalism”. Only one amendment – to the atomic number of Xenon – stayed up longer than an hour. It seemed the Wikipedians’ tools and know-how were just too much for our team.

So we raised our game. We picked ten more articles for treatment and spread them between five different members of the PC Pro team, so that our IP addresses wouldn’t be so easily tracked. We also made our deliberate errors far more subtle than before – changing the launch date of a Centrino chip and the name of Jesse James’ mother’s first husband, for example. And to make our errors even harder to detect, we left the edit summaries blank, so there’d be no obvious clues for editors.

Despite our stealth attempts, the vast majority of errors were discovered remarkably quickly. The ridiculously minor Jesse James error was corrected within a minute, and a very slight change to Queen Anne’s entry was put right within two. Eight out of the ten errors were corrected within 17 hours.

Two errors slipped through the net: the Centrino date change and, more obviously, our claim that astronaut Jim Lovell and his crew had flown around the moon twice on the Apollo 13 mission. Both were left to stand for more than a week before we corrected them to ensure there was no long-term damage from our experiment.

The lessons? It seems Wikipedia corrects the vast majority of errors within minutes, but if they’re not spotted within the first day the chances of them being corrected dwindle, as you’re then relying on someone to spot the mistake while reading the article rather than reviewing the edits.

Back to ‘Wikipedia uncovered’.

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