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Funk & Wagnalls New Standard Encyclopedia, ca. 1960s

Encyclopedia (Greek: ἐνκύκλιos παιδεία, enkyklios paideia; "circle of instruction") refers to a reference resource giving information on many subjects or on the many aspects of one subject. As such, an encyclopedia is generally a summary, a storehouse of knowledge collected in an alphabetical or thematic way with an objective and universal claim, and not specialized, monothematic or subjective as a treaty or an essay. Encyclopaedia Britannica is among the best known and widely read print encyclopedias, though Wikipedia and Conservapedia are both well-known encyclopedias based on MediaWiki software and hosted on the internet.


Antiquity to Middle Ages

The origins of what was to become the modern encyclopedia began in ancient times. In Sumeria, during the fourth millennium BC, a thematic glossary was written as a first attempt to order or catalog the knowledge of the world, and 600 years later a similar attempt is registered in Ebla following a conventional order of signs. These first attempts are called lexical lists[1], and were based on a listing of professions, vessels, trees, animals, etc, and written in cuneiform.

In ancient Egypt, there are also thematic lists that can be considered as protoencyclopedias[2]. The Ramessum Onomasticon[3][4], written around 1750 BC is a list of words grouped by categories. Another work of the same genre, but much more developed, is the Onomastic of Amenophis[5][6], made around 1100 BC. It has 610 elements organized in a thematic way and would contain more than 2000 different information with the ambition to create «a systematic catalog of the universe. This distant ancestor of the encyclopedic dictionary would have the task to propose a program of instruction for humanity founded on the organization of the world.

The Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 BC) made a summary of the knowledge of his time in one of his dialogues, the Timaeus[7], which can be considered a "methodical encyclopedia," covering such subjects as astronomy, cosmology, medicine, and physics. His disciple Aristotle (384-322 BC) produced a large number of treatises[8] on a wide variety of subjects with a truly encyclopedic spirit and without equivalents in the ancient world (poetics, rhetoric, logic, politics, physics, psychology, biology, ethics, etc.). However, his efforts were not disseminated until some 275 years after his death, towards the year 50 BC. Other early encyclopedic writers were not so fortunate; Democritus[9] and Posidonius[10] are among those whose works are largely lost or in fragments.

Among the Romans, the first to attempt to summarize ancient knowledge was Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BC), whose Antiquitatum rerum humanarum et divinarum libri XLI[11] have only endured as fragments and extracts in other later authors and encyclopedists. For Varro, the path to knowledge was the etymology, as it was for the much later Visigoth, St. Isidore of Seville, probably the last to use Varro's work for his own encyclopedia, the Etymologies[12]. For Varro the term verbum ("word") came from veritas ("truth"), which legitimized that procedure. A work of 41 books, 25 were devoted to human affairs and the rest to the divinity of the pagan gods. The original work disappeared over the years, due to various medieval recasts.

Latin copy of Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia; written in Rome ca. 1460 by Jacopo della Pergola

Towards the beginning of the first century of our era, Aulo Cornelio Celsus wrote De Artibus (ca. 30 BC), an encyclopedia in 26 books which covered subjects of agriculture, war, rhetoric, philosophy, law, and medicine, with this last subject - called De Medicina - having survived to modern times[13]. A few years later would come one of the best-known works of antiquity, the Naturalis Historia (Natural History) by Pliny the Elder[14]. He compiled a work of 37 chapters that cover the history of art and architecture, medicine, geography, geology and all aspects of the world around him, releasing it in 77 AD. He stated in his prologue that he had compiled twenty thousand facts from two thousand titles of two hundred different authors, and added that many others came from his own experience.

In his Noctes Atticae (Attic Nights, II century, AD), Aulus Cornelius Gellius (125-180 AD) lectures on numerous subjects of literature, arts, philosophy, history, law, geometry, medicine, natural sciences, meteorology and geography, although with a more essayistic and scholarly spirit than systematic and encyclopedic[15]. On the other hand, the Polyhistor, the work of the Roman writer Gaius Julius Solinus (d. 400 AD), presents the curiosities of the world by regions[16]. Although the work has been lost, numerous elements of it, as in the case of Varro, were collected in medieval encyclopedias. At the beginning of the 4th century Nonio Marcello wrote De compendiosa doctrina, a compilation or epitome of treatises on language and various techniques, and arranged alphabetically[17]. Marciano Capella, a lawyer who lived in Algeria, was the author of De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii ("Weddings of Philology and Mercury"), written between 410 and 420[18]. This manual in the form of allegorical narration synthesizes in 9 books the knowledge of the time: philology, grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and harmony. It was very popular in Carolingian times, and served as a reference to organize studies in basic education (the Trivium) and higher (the Quadrivium). It was read even in the Renaissance and inspired Copernicus in particular[19].

Between 1403-1408, on the orders of the Chinese emperor Ghengzu[20], the Yongle dadian (永樂大典, "great canon of Yongle") was created[21], and until the advent of Wikipedia, it was the largest encyclopedia in the history of mankind. It included the contents of all books available in the imperial library, including canonical, historical, philosophical, and artistic works. Each section (juan) was a collection of excerpts, sometimes entire chapters or treatises on one general topic, indicated by the character-name of the section. The encyclopedia numbered 22,877 sections, divided into 11,095 volumes. The total volume of the code is about 510,000 pages and 300,000,000 characters. Currently, no more than 400 volumes of this work exist, which are scattered in several museums around the world[22].

Beginning of the modern era

Margarita Philosophica (Philosophical Pearl)[23] by Gregor Reisch (1503) was a widely used general encyclopedia, the first such work directly printed from the new printing press, and as such was readily available for student use in universities. Like the later Annales Bojorum (Annals of Bavaria) of Johannes Aventinus (1517)[24] and the Encyclopaedia Cursus Philosophici by Johann Heinrich Alsted (1630)[25], the Margarita Philosophica followed a systematic order; like many textbooks of the time it followed the pattern of a dialogue between the student and his teacher[26]. It was during this period that the word "encyclopedia" was coined, used to describe these and further works of these collected subjects[27][28].

The Grand Dictionaire Historique (1674)[29] by Louis Moréri was the first large, national-language, alphabetical reference work for the topics of history, biography and geography. In his tradition stands the peculiar Dictionnaire historique et critique (1696/1697) by Pierre Bayle, which was originally intended to correct and supplement Moréris's work. For rather short articles, Bayle provided a very detailed and critical apparatus of annotations. Since Bayle primarily treated those objects that interested him personally, his work is to be regarded as an ego document, an intellectual autobiography which stood rather beside, and not in place of, a general encyclopedia.

By 1700 biographical and historiographic information, largely missing from earlier works, was added to a new generation of encyclopedias. As dictionaries they also arranged articles alphabetically, breaking with the earlier thematic arrangement. With Antoine Furetière's Dictionnaire universel des arts et sciences (1690)[30], this new direction began in the history of the encyclopedia, and carried to a a further step, the bridging of the contrast of scientific-philosophical and biographical-historical subjects, such as in the Universal Lexicon (1732-1754) by Johann Heinrich Zedler[31], a major work published in 68 volumes which was the first encyclopedia containing biographies of living people.

Modern encyclopedias

Johnson's New Universal Cyclopedia (1876)

Johann Heinrich Alsted's Encyclopedia was a work in Latin that enjoyed great authority throughout much of Europe during much of the 17th century, but was considered outdated and outmoded when that century ended. New discoveries were made in the sciences, and the thought was given as to how these discoveries should be presented, how they should be understood, and within the covers of reference books how they should be arranged to correlate with one another. Many works were published throughout Europe during the 18th century, but several stand out for the influence they had in not just solving the arrangement, but in making up the modern general encyclopedia.

Chambers Cyclopedia

Ephraim Chambers solved the arrangement problem with his two-volume Cyclopedia (1728)[32] which, in addition to the alphabetical order, introduced another innovation: internal links from one article to another, prefaced by a scheme of knowledge divided into divisions and subdivisions. The first English-language general encyclopedia, three editions were printed during Chambers' lifetime, and after his death his work was continued: the seventh edition (1753) was accompanied by two supplemental volumes, while in 1778-85 and 1786 the most extensive edition appeared in five volumes.


Chambers' work was translated into French and inspired the authors of the most famous encyclopedia of the 18th century, which had such a significant impact on the cultural and political life of Europe on the eve of the French Revolution. The Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers[33] ("Encyclopedia, or Dictionary of Sciences, Arts and Crafts") was published from 1751 to 1772, and edited by Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert. Though the intent was to translate Chambers' work, the project quickly expanded from an initial 8 volumes to 28, a work that became truly French. The historical significance of this particular encyclopedia is due to the fact that it contained a systematic review of the ideas of the French Enlightenment; indeed, many of the enlighteners themselves, from Jean Jacques Rousseau to Voltaire, had worked on it.

Diderot's views on what an encyclopedia should be were presented to him in an article of the same name. In his opinion, a perfect encyclopedia should be something more than the sum of its components. "An encyclopedia ought to make good the failure to execute such a project hitherto, and should encompass not only the fields already covered by the academies, but each and every branch of human knowledge."[34] Diderot believed that the encyclopedia should establish links between concepts. Realizing that the whole array of human knowledge could not be presented in one work, he still believed that it was possible to at least show the interdependence between them.

Though it introduced hardly any actual innovations, it was praised for its size, thematic width, systematic underpinning, and the many illustrations - some two thousand five hundred in all - while its competitors had at most a few hundred illustrations. Nevertheless, she was less successful and influential than often assumed; because of the sheer size of the work, it reached relatively few readers, compared for example with the widespread and repeatedly relaunched Cyclopaedia. Although French in origin, there is considerable evidence to suggest that its creation had been influenced by the British, in particular the philosophy of Chancellor Francis Bacon.[35]

Above all, it applies with its critical and secular attitude as a jewel of the Enlightenment, the pan-European educational offensive. Attacks by the church and difficulties with censorship overshadowed their emergence as well as later disputes between the editors Diderot and d'Alembert. Diderot and many of his co-authors at various points in the Encyclopédie brought criticism against certain ideas in the ruling society. As such, the work was the product of many Encyclopedists' achievements, but it was ultimately completed only thanks to the intervention of Louis de Jaucourt, who even hired secretaries at his own expense. As such, there was also evidence to suggest the Encyclopédistes wrote it specifically as a means to subtly demean and ultimately destroy Christianity.[36][37][38] In the last ten volumes, which he wrote mostly himself, there are fewer polemical sites than in the first seven, which could make them less interesting for today's readers.

Encyclopædia Britannica

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition (1974-2012)

The Encyclopédie in turn inspired the Encyclopædia Britannica, which had modest beginnings in Edinburgh: two Scotsman, Andrew Bell and Colin Macfarquhar conceived the idea of publishing their own version the first edition, distributed between 1768 and 1771, was composed of just three volumes hastily completed - A-B, C-L and M-Z - for a total of 2659 pages. In 1797, when the third edition was completed, it had been expanded to 18 volumes dealing with a wide range of subjects, with entries provided by a set of authorities in their field.

Encyclopædia Britannica went through eleven editions before its publishing headquarters was moved from London to Chicago; the 1911 work is regarded as among the finest encyclopedias ever printed. A 28-volume fifteenth edition was published in 1974 in which the format of the encyclopedia was divided into three major sections: the Micropædia: Ready Reference and Index, which presented the basic, general information normally found; the Macropædia: Knowledge in Depth, which presented many articles in great detail; and the Propædia: Outline of Knowledge, the guide to the encyclopedia as a whole with its thematic connections as well as an index to the contributers[39]. By 2012 it had expanded to 32 volumes.

Brockhaus Enzyklopädie

Brockhaus Conversations-Lexikon, first edition (1796-1808)

The Brockhaus Conversations-Lexikon was published in Leipzig, Germany from 1796 to 1808 in 6 volumes. Parallel to other 18th-century encyclopedias, the scope was expanded beyond that of previous publications, in an effort to be all-encompassing. But the work was not intended for scientific use, but to disseminate the results of research and discoveries in a simple and popular form without excessive detail. This format, in contrast to that of Encyclopædia Britannica, was widely imitated by successive nineteenth-century encyclopedias in Great Britain, the United States, France, Spain, Italy and other countries. Of the encyclopedias that had a certain influence between the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, the Brockhaus Enzyklopädie is perhaps the most similar in form to modern encyclopedias, and would literally be the basis for the following works:

Chambers' Encyclopedia

Unrelated to the author of the original Cyclopedia, William and Robert Chambers of Edinburgh used an English translation of Brockhaus as the basis for the well-regarded Chambers' Encyclopedia, and was released between 1860 and 1868 in ten volumes, for a total of 8,283 pages. A revised edition was published in 1874, with 8,320 pages. The articles were generally excellent, especially in Jewish literature, folklore and applied science but, as in Brockhaus, the scope of the work did not allow for a prolonged discussion. A completely new edition was published in ten volumes from 1888 to 1892, edited by David Patrick. Further new editions came out in 1895, 1901 and 1906. A modern Chambers' was published in 15 volumes in 1950 by George Newnes.

Encyclopedia Americana

German-American lawyer and political scientist Francis Lieber would take the seventh edition of the Brockhaus Conversations-Lexikon and use it for the 13-volume Encyclopedia Americana (1820), which would eventually become the second-largest printed universal lexicon in the English language after the Encyclopædia Britannica. As the name implies, it is primarily focused on North America, with coverage of American and Canadian history and geography particularly extensive.

The 175th-anniversary edition of 2004 contains 45,000 articles with 25 million words and was written with the participation of 6500 authors. It contains 9,000 bibliographies, 150,000 cross-references, over 1,000 tables, 1,200 maps and nearly 4,500 black and white and color photographs. Since 1923, The Americana Annual has been published as a yearbook to update the set.

Funk & Wagnalls

New York-based publisher Funk & Wagnalls was originally founded in 1875, publishing exclusively religious books until the publication of The Literary Digest in 1890, marks the move to specializing in dictionaries and encyclopedias. In 1894 they published its most memorable publication, The Standard Dictionary of the English Language. In 1912 Funk & Wagnalls Standard Encyclopedia was launched, based on an edition of Chambers' Encyclopedia. In 1965, the company was acquired by Reader's Digest Association and again by Dun & Bradstreet. In subsequent years, the company sold its publishing rights to other companies.

The claim to fame that Funk & Wagnalls had became a part of popular culture, as it was named repeatedly in skits on television's Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson during the later part of the 20th century. It was also sold by the volume in grocery stores, with shoppers adding to their personal sets every week[40].

Collier's Encyclopedia

Peter F. Collier was a magazine publisher at the end of the 19th century, having made a fortune with his Collier's Weekly magazine; his publications were known for the excellence of their articles, illustrations, and in many cases the investigative journalism exposing corruption and fraud in high places[41]. Collier's publishing empire had previously printed and sold Chamber's Encyclopedia in the 1890s, and in 1902 Collier released his own encyclopedia, which over the years would expand its base by being sold door-to-door, with the affordability of paying for and receiving one to two volumes per month. Meant for high school and college students, it had 20 volumes by 1950; by the time it finished its run in 1997 it had 24 volumes with over 23,000 entries. The quality of the writing - it had an extensive list of well-known, credentialed authors in its bibliography, and many of its articles were signed - placed Collier's Encyclopedia alongside Encyclopedia Americana and Encyclopædia Britannica as one of the great English language general encyclopedias of the 20th century.

Young people's encyclopedias

The New Book of Knowledge and World Book, at the Lincoln Park Public Library, Lincoln Park, Michigan

It was realized early on that young people from elementary to high school age benefited from encyclopedias, and the fact that they could be written to their levels of understanding did not escape the notice of the publishers. The Book of Knowledge was published by the Grolier Society in 1910, a 24-volume set arranged by topic rather than alphabetically; it would be replaced by the 20-volume The New Book of Knowledge in 1966, rearranged back to alphabetically.

Other publishers would have their versions printed within a very short time. Compton's Encyclopedia, a 26-volume work first printed in 1922, had the innovation of a "fact index" in each volume, giving bullet information on subjects not treated elsewhere in the set. Grolier also published the Merit Student's Encyclopedia (1967) and the Academic American Encyclopedia (1980), with all three meant for junior and senior high school students. Britannica got into the act as well, publishing Britannica Junior Encyclopedia in 1934, a work in 15 volumes written for elementary school students.

By far the most famous of these sets, as well as the best-selling American encyclopedia of any kind, is World Book Encyclopedia, first published in 1918 with 15 volumes, with an expansion to 22 volumes today. Unlike many other encyclopedias, World Book is published in volumes that are not uniform from the point of view of length, since each volume covers a specific letter of the alphabet. The exceptions are C and S which, due to their length are divided into two volumes, while single volumes represent the letters J-K, N-O, Q-R, U-V, and W to Z. World Book has a total of 14,300 pages, including about 27,500 photographs or illustrations, with many in color; over 3,800 editors helped write the articles. In the first volume the complete list of the main authors and consultants is given, with a synthetic profile and the topics they dealt with. At the end of most of the entries the name of the author is indicated.

Specialized encyclopedias

Unlike the general encyclopedia, the specialized encyclopedia covers a specific topic or subject, and often going into great detail not normally covered by a general encyclopedia. Appearing in the second half of the 20th century, these works were published in single or multi-volumes, and were usually sold in bookstores, though several, such as the various series by Time-Life, were sold via subscription. The subjects themselves were were enormously-varied, covering nations, history, wildlife, religion, photography, science, and so on, of which a few examples are mentioned below:

  • The Encyclopedia of Photography (1970)[42]
  • Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (1972), by Shimon Gibson[43]
  • The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile (2000) by G. N. Georgano and Nick Georgano[44]
  • Popular Mechanics Do-it-yourself Encyclopedia (1955)[45]
  • Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia (English translation, 1972-75) by Bernhard Grzimek[46]

Online encyclopedias

The majority of printed encyclopedias ceased publication[47] by the second decade of the 21st century, with the most notable being Encyclopædia Britannica in 2012 after a run of more than 200 years; its entire content is now available online[48] via subscription, or on DVDs for home computers. Brockhaus Enzyklopädie also ceased publishing in 2008 after a similar, two-century run, with a digital run lasting six more years. Collier's Encyclopedia stopped publishing in 1997, the contents of which were used for a time by Microsoft in its version of a digital encyclopedia named Encarta. Encyclopedia Americana stopped in 2006, leaving the only other major American encyclopedia, World Book, still being printed as of 2019[49].

The reason for the demise was the availability of the internet as a source of information, and the creation of freely-accessible online encyclopedias. On March 9, 2000, the Nupedia project was launched. From the very beginning, Nupedia adhered to the principles of a free encyclopedia, using the Nupedia Open Content License first, and then moving to the GNU FDL in early 2001 at the request of Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation. After changing the Nupedia license to GFDL, a text appeared on their website[50] about the decision to combine the GNUpedia (the original, Linux-system based name) and Nupedia projects and urging visitors to GNU.org to contribute to the free encyclopedia. Instead of "open content encyclopaedia", Nupedia received the slogan "free encyclopedia", which was later inherited by Wikipedia. But despite the status of a free encyclopedia, Nupedia was not a wiki site, and writing texts was allowed only to certified specialists after the approval of the preliminary application.

Despite the great resonance and interest in the project, only 2 articles were written in six months and Nupedia never became a successful project. In order to speed up the process of replenishing Nupedia with articles, Wikipedia was opened on January 15, 2001, and was powered by the Mediawiki program. In the early months of Wikipedia, success was amazing; Wikipedia attracted new participants, as well as Nupedia participants who switched to the new project. Soon, Wikipedia began to function completely independent of Nupedia. Supporters of GNUPedia and the Free Software Foundation liked Wikipedia, who were opposed to article checking and were very worried about bureaucracy. Nupedia was closed on September 26, 2003, its articles were moved to Wikipedia. By the time of the closure, 2.5 years after the start of work, Nupedia had only 24 ready-made articles and more than 74 unfinished articles.

The disadvantages generated by Wikipedia, however, is not accessibility for destructive influences (trolling, vandalism, etc), but internal inconsistency; few articles are linked to others in what would normally be a thematic flow that made Britannica and others decisive in their works. Lack of competent, credible authorship is also a major factor; unlike printed encyclopedias, the vast majority of articles in Wikipedia are written by amateurs with little to no expertise in the fields that they are writing about, with some of these writers being in the news for the scandals they have created[51][52][53][54].


  1. http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/dcclt/intro/lexical_intro.html
  2. https://www.scribd.com/document/74618841/121-Ancient-Egyptian-Onomastics
  3. http://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?id=4395
  4. https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/publications/online_research_catalogues/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=3428395&partid=1&catalogueOnly=true&catParentPageid=33723&output=bibliography/!!/OR/!!/7682/!//!/The%20Ramesseum%20Papyri/!//!!//!!!/&catalogueName=The%20Ramesseum%20Papyri&catalogueSection=The%20Ramesseum%20Papyri&sortBy=catNumber
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  14. https://archive.org/details/plinysnaturalhis00plinrich/page/n8
  15. http://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?id=2894
  16. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A12581.0001.001?view=toc
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  20. http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Ming/personsmingchengzu.html
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  35. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05418a.htm
  36. The Duty of Americans at the Present Crisis by Timothy Dwight, July 4, 1798
    “About the year 1728, Voltaire, so celebrated for his wit and brilliancy and not less distinguished for his hatred of Christianity and his abandonment of principle, formed a systematical design to destroy Christianity and to introduce in its stead a general diffusion of irreligion and atheism. For this purpose he associated with himself Frederick the II, king of Prussia, and Mess. D’Alembert and Diderot, the principal compilers of the Encyclopedie, all men of talents, atheists and in the like manner abandoned. // “The principle parts of this system were: // “1. The compilation of the Encyclopedie: in which with great art and insidiousness the doctrines of … Christian theology were rendered absurd and ridiculous; and the mind of the reader was insensibly steeled against conviction and duty. // “2. The overthrow of the religious orders in Catholic countries, a step essentially necessary to the destruction of the religion professed in those countries. // “3. The establishment of a sect of philosophists to serve, it is presumed as a conclave, a rallying point, for all their followers. // “4. The appropriation to themselves, and their disciples, of the places and honors of members of the French Academy, the most respectable literary society in France, and always considered as containing none but men of prime learning and talents. In this way they designed to hold out themselves and their friends as the only persons of great literary and intellectual distinction in that country, and to dictate all literary opinions to the nation. // “5. The fabrication of books of all kinds against Christianity, especially such as excite doubt and generate contempt and derision. Of these they issued by themselves and their friends who early became numerous, an immense number; so printed as to be purchased for little or nothing, and so written as to catch the feelings, and steal upon the approbation, of every class of men. // “6. The formation of a secret Academy, of which Voltaire was the standing president, and in which books were formed, altered, forged, imputed as posthumous to deceased writers of reputation, and sent abroad with the weight of their names. These were printed and circulated at the lowest price through all classes of men in an uninterrupted succession, and through every part of the kingdom.”
    Read more at https://www.wnd.com/2006/04/35810/#LFe1HvZ0eTHxBBmT.99
  37. http://myemail.constantcontact.com/JAN--11---Plot-to-destroy-Christianity-revealed-by-Yale-President-Timothy-Dwight.html?soid=1108762609255&aid=CbibQMZY5JY
  38. https://www.catholic.com/encyclopedia/Encyclopedists
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  48. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/9142412/Encyclopaedia-Britannica-stops-printing-after-more-than-200-years.html
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  51. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1544737/Fake-Wikipedia-prof-altered-20000-entries.html
  52. https://www.searchenginepeople.com/blog/most-notorious-wikipedia-scandals.html
  53. https://www.cnet.com/news/corruption-in-wikiland-paid-pr-scandal-erupts-at-wikipedia/
  54. https://thinkprogress.org/wikipedia-editors-uncover-extortion-scam-and-extensive-cybercrime-syndicate-d4949ebf47c8/