While Wikipedia is the fifth most popular website in the world and the number of people using it continues to increase, recent research has discovered that its volunteer editors have been leaving in vast numbers and this trend looks set to continue. Does this mean Wikipedia has had its day?

Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger created Wikipedia in 2001 with the aim of empowering people with knowledge by compiling a free encyclopedia for everyone in the world. It uses open source software and is a non-profit organisation relying on fundraising. In 2007 it had grown to 2 million articles and today it has more than 14 million articles in over 250 languages.

Many think Wikipedia’s success has been due to its simple yet radical principles; anyone can write and edit Wikipedia’s articles. However, Andrew Lih, the author of “The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia“, sees Wikipedia as merely having extended the hacker culture of a free and open cyberspace to mainstream Internet users.

Students the world over use Wikipedia as a resource whether their teachers or parents like it or not, or are aware of it or not. I’ve come across lecturers who despise it with a passion, while others accept their students’ use of it. I actively discourage my university students by focusing instead on the importance of approaching online sources with a critical head. Yet I have to admit relying on Wikipedia when I want to find out information quickly (Wikipanion is one of only a few iPhone applications I use on a daily basis). I hang my head in shame, but also wonder why people are preferring to only use Wikipedia passively.

One reason put forward for the rapid decline in volunteers is the increase in bureaucracy, which has taken the original fun out of freely contributing content. Wikipedia adopted additional rules to exercise more control and avoid entries like John Seigenthaler being wrongly accused of involvement in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy (and, my personal favourite, that David Beckham was an 18th century Chinese goalkeeper), but in doing so could be seen as becoming more like the organisations it originally set itself apart from. Yet without good quality control, Wikipedia is an unreliable resource which can’t be taken seriously.

But how will the lack of editors affect Wikipedia? Losing 49,000 English language editors in the first three months of this year must have some impact. Are we seeing the demise of free user-generated content or is it merely a natural evolution?