Before today, I had never visited Scots Wikipedia. In fact, my only brush with Scots was reading the novel Trainspotting about 10 years ago and that took a lot of concentration because I have never been to Scotland, do not know anyone from Scotland, and do not speak Scots. However, my editor then dropped this Reddit post into our Slack and thus, I fell headfirst into the Scots Wikipedia rabbit hole.
Earlier today, Reddit user Ultach wrote a fairly lengthy post about an alarming discovery. In it, they described that Scots Wikipedia has a notorious reputation for being inaccurate with regard to vocabulary and grammar. Ultach claims that Scots Wikipedia was poorly spelled English with a few Scots words thrown in here and there. Out of curiosity, they checked the Wikipedia’s edit history... and lo, apparently one person had created and edited roughly a third of Scots Wikipedia’s 60,000 or so articles.
Ultach then posted a link to a screenshot of a redacted version of that person’s Wikipedia User page. The bio was the stuff of internet meme glory. After noting that they had been an active user and administrator on Scots Wiki since February 2013, the user noted that “Apart from Wikipedia, I’m a brony, and an INTP.” Chuckles aside, Ultach claims that this person, by 2018, had written 20,000 articles and made 200,000 edits, possibly averaging about nine articles a day for seven years.
Long story short, Ultach claims this prolific editor is an American teen who does not actually speak Scots. While Ultach details a pretty compelling case for why they think this editor doesn’t speak Scots, it initially wasn’t clear how Ultach concluded an American teenager was behind all this.
At this point, I decided to rifle through Scots Wikipedia myself. While peeping through the edit history of several articles on Scots Wiki—which is actually kind of hard if you’re not comfortable reading any version of Scots, correct or not—I did find that one user did frequently pop up over and over again.
When I went to that user’s bio to try and verify for myself, it didn’t match Ultach’s screenshot. After this article was initially published, I managed to get in contact with another Scots Wiki admin, MJL, who is not the teen but is aware of their activities. They told me over the phone that it appeared Ultach had pulled an older version of the teen culprit’s profile page, and told me that the teen is no longer a brony. MJL also confirmed that the teen began editing Scots Wiki articles when they were 12, which would make them around 19 currently.
After poking around some more on Wikipedia talk pages, it would appear that the drama has only intensified. Ultach’s Reddit post sparked the internet’s ire. The user, who Ultach claims is also the admin of the Scots Wikipedia, has since deleted their local profile page. (The global one still exists, but is blank.) In the wake of the Reddit post, MJL has since directed all questions to their own page. There’s currently a vigorous debate between admins, editors, and complete randos about whether the entirety of Scots Wikipedia should be closed or edited for accuracy.
The discourse has gotten particularly fiery.
“[W]e are at a crossroads,” wrote user. “If this project is closed it will never be reopened. There will never be a Scots Wikipedia in existence again. If you think that is what is best for the Scots language, then so be it.”
“From the sheer volume of pages affected, it’d take far longer to clear up the inaccuracies present in Scots Wikipedia than it would be to simply start over,” wrote another user. “If that is not possible, better to have no Scots Wikipedia than pass off a load of nonsense as Scots.”
Given the sheer number of pages edited incorrectly, it is possible that this discovery could spell the end of Scots Wikipedia forever. That’s because every Wikipedia article is maintained by volunteers who aren’t in it for the fame or accolades (and after personally trying to navigate Wikipedia’s editing system, I have to say, woof, these are patient heroes). Editing out all the inaccuracies would be a massive undertaking—and one that’s unpaid at that.
Part of the problem, according to MJL, is that there aren’t many people manning the Scots Wikipedia. People come and go, and currently, there are at most about 10-20 admins and editors altogether. The Scots Wikipedia was created in 2004, by native Scots speakers, but they have since left the project. According to MJL, the teen at the center of this was a well-meaning person who was simply one of the only people who cared enough to put in the time and effort.
Another issue is that there seems to stem from Wikipedia’s labyrinthine back-end system. Admins, MJL said, mostly make sure no vandalism occurs on a given page and their main focus is to navigate the back-end. They aren’t necessarily monitoring pages for accuracy. Editors on smaller projects, like the Scots wiki, don’t necessarily coordinate new articles that get written, either. They often work individually, unaware of what another editor may be doing. This is a huge failure on Wikimedia’s part. Between the opacity of the Wikimedia back end and the reliance on unpaid community volunteers, something like this was bound to happen.
MJL has since created an AMA on Reddit around the Scots Wikipedia. At this point, it’s clear that to fix the problem, more native Scots speakers would have to volunteer their time. And while there are current native Scots speakers who act as editors, admins like MJL can’t do much more than ask them to volunteer more time to the effort.
I reached out to Wikimedia, the company behind Wikipedia, to see if anything like this has ever happened to an entire wiki before. And if so, what the fuck is anyone supposed to do about it?
After initial publication, the Wikimedia Foundation spokesperson told Gizmodo that, “Wikimedia Foundation does not set editorial policy on Wikipedia or our other projects, meaning we do not write, edit, or determine what content is included on a specific language Wikipedia or how that content is maintained. Rather, editorial policy is determined by the volunteers who edit and participate in the development of each project.” They then clarified that the company’s role is to “provide volunteers with the tools and assistance they need to meet a complex set of challenges and support the volunteer community in how they moderate content.” Essentially, it will be up to the Wikipedia community to figure out what the fate of Scots Wiki.
Whatever happens, this is a sober reminder that your teacher was right all along about why you shouldn’t cite Wikipedia as a source.
Do you know something about what is going on with Scots Wikipedia? Are you the person who allegedly edited over 20,000 Scots wiki articles without speaking a lick of Scots? If so, I would like to chat. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, or via Gizmodo’s Secure Drop.
Updated 08/25/2020, 8:55 p.m. ET: This article was updated to include additional information after an interview with a Scots Wikipedia admin. An earlier version of this article also stated that the teen had relinquished their position as Scots Wikipedia admin. This is not true. MJL merely directed any queries to their profile page and clarified that there is more than one admin in Scots Wikipedia. We regret the error.
Updated 08/27/2020, 4:45 p.m. ET: Updated to include Wikimedia Foundation’s response.