Dartmouth researchers say they were surprised to find that Good Samaritans -- those people who update the online Wikipedia encyclopedia when just passing by -- are actually as reliable as regular, registered users of the site.
The researchers examined the quality of Wikipedia content based on how long it persisted before being changed or corrected. Wikipedia's archive of edits and user reputation allowed for the research to be done.
"This finding was both novel and unexpected," said Denise Anthony, associate professor of sociology, in a statement. "In traditional laboratory studies of collective goods, we don't include Good Samaritans, those people who just happen to pass by and contribute, because those carefully designed studies don't allow for outside actors. It took a real-life situation for us to recognize and appreciate the contributions of Good Samaritans to Web content."
Sean Smith, associate professor of computer science, added: "Wikipedia is a great example of how open source contributions work for the greater good."
The researchers' findings are presented in a paper called "The Quality of Open Source Production: Zealots and Good Samaritans in the Case of Wikipedia."
Wikipedia has actually changed its process so that frequent anonymous contributors do now have to register, though the researchers said they don't expect this to negatively affect quality contributions from passersby.
Wikipedia has taken numerous efforts to solidify its quality such as by testing the color-coding of edits to red flag potentially dubious content. Wikipedia earlier this year broke into the top 10 most used sites in the United States.
The Dartmouth effort is not the first by researchers interested in Wikipedia's effects. Researchers at an Israeli university say they have come up with a way to make computers smarter by enabling them to consult the online Wikipedia encyclopedia.