Scientists at Oxford University in the United Kingdom have developed a way to measure the level of controversy a Wikipedia page is causing, according to a report from the BBC earlier today. The most controversial topics are unlikely to surprise the more worldly, though some of the local conflicts may even be of interest to the cynics.


The most controversial pages across ten languages on Wikipedia were Israel, Adolf Hitler, The Holocaust and God. The first three of those topics all stem form a cultural fascination with the most destructive war in human history, and the anti-Semitic movement that drove some of its horror. The fact that vestiges of that movement live on today is clear in the controversy surrounding the page.

Wikipedia editing wars

The researchers identified the pages that caused the most controversy by looking for pages that were the center of edit wars; pages that were almost constantly being changed over and back between two or more opposing points of view. The researchers thought this a better methodology for identifying controversy than simply looking at the pages that had seen the most edits.

Wikipedia, with its open editing system, is prone to edit wars and though the online encyclopedia has some methods of stalling and refusing edits it is clearly not enough to stop controversy raging on. The web site has been the victim of criticism in the past for is open editing philosophy, but, without that philosophy it could never have existed.

Wikipedia’s controversies differ by region

In the French edition of Wikipedia, the article concerning politician Segolene Royal was one of the most controversial, while in Romania football team Universit­atea Craiova was the most controversial topic overall. The research summary did not reveal any more examples of this kind of selected controversy by geography, but it is an interesting result.

Wikipedia may do well to copy the methodology of the academics who worked on this paper. Wikipedia, particularly the languages with a sufficiently large amount of contributors, is a wonderful insight into human culture. The online encyclopedia should harness that insight.

It would be fantastic to be able to go through a Wikipedia database and easily find out what the most controversial article of July 2009 was. Controversy is at the heart of Wikipedia, it’s at least as important as consensus, and it’s time for the company to recognize that fact and celebrate it.