Wikipedia: An opportunity to rethink the links between sources' credibility, trust, and authority
First Monday

Wikipedia: An opportunity to rethink the links between sources' credibility, trust, and authority by Gilles Sahut and Andre Tricot

The Web and its main tools (Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter) deeply raise and renew fundamental questions, that everyone asks almost every day: Is this information or content true? Can I trust this author or source? These questions are not new, they have been the same with books, newspapers, broadcasting and television, and, more fundamentally, in every human interpersonal communication. This paper is focused on two scientific problems on this issue. The first one is theoretical: to address this issue, many concepts have been used in library and information sciences, communication and psychology. The links between these concepts are not clear: sometimes two concepts are considered as synonymous, sometimes as very different. The second one is historical: sources like Wikipedia deeply challenge the epistemic evaluation of information sources, compared to previous modes of information production. This paper proposes an integrated and simple model considering the relation between a user, a document and an author as human communication. It reduces the problem to three concepts: credibility as a characteristic granted to information depending on its truth-value; trust as the ability to produce credible information; authority when the power to influence of an author is accepted, i.e., when readers accept that the source can modify their opinion, knowledge and decisions. The model describes also two kinds of relationships between the three concepts: an upward link and a downward link. The model is confronted with findings of empirical research on Wikipedia in particular.


Credibility, trust, authority: Three key concepts at the core of the epistemic evaluation of information sources
Previous models
A theoretical and historical problem
A model linking authority, trust and credibility




“Those opinions are ‘generally accepted’ [endoxa] which are accepted by everyone or by the majority or by the philosophers — i.e., by all, or by the majority, or by the most notable and illustrious of them” noted Aristotle 24 centuries ago [1]. The alternatives mentioned by the Greek philosopher are today more relevant than ever due to the recent evolution of documents. The freedom and ease of publishing on the Internet comes at a cost. Information seekers are faced with a wealth of sources from multiple sources. It results in uncertainty about the credibility of information. This uncertainly is especially notable when information is not published by gatekeepers, traditionally producing and filtering information for the public, while respecting established processes and norms. Moreover, in the context of online publishing — such as blogs, wikis and social networks — online documents have new formal features. As a result, credibility criteria reserved for the world of print has changed (Sundar, 2008; Jessen and Jørgensen, 2012).

This paper is focused on two problems related to this issue. The first is theoretical: the semantic ambiguity of credibility, trust and authority in library and information sciences, that results in a lack of accuracy when considering the epistemic evaluation of information sources. The second one is historical: the social Web deeply challenges the epistemic evaluation of information sources, compared to previous modes of information production. Our goal is to discuss these concepts and their relationships as well as to propose a model for the epistemic evaluation of information sources. We use the case of Wikipedia to illustrate how credibility, trust and authority can be challenged today, but also how Wikipedia changed in order to improve its credibility, trust and authority.



Credibility, trust, authority: Three key concepts at the core of the epistemic evaluation of information sources

Since Aristotle, credibility, trust and authority are three key concepts widely discussed in philosophy, epistemology and, more specifically, in the philosophy and sociology of science. Credibility, trust and authority are involved in almost all our relationships with other humans. Our paper is focused on these concepts as they are used in empirical and theoretical literature in library and information sciences. Several studies focused on the way in which individuals evaluate online information and its credibility. Other studies were conducted regarding strategies used by online sources to earn the trust of readers. In these studies, the specific words “credibility”, “trust” and “authority” are frequently bandied. Those terms prove challenging to exactly define in these studies. These concepts are multi-dimensional, complex and conceptualized differently (Kelton, et al., 2008; Rieh, 2010) [2].

The credibility of information

Empirical studies devoted to notions of credibility arose in the context of research led by Carl Hovland and his colleagues at Yale, starting during the Second World War and became the core reference of numerous studies in communication (Metzger, et al., 2003). A lot of research has been published in this field, mainly about the credibility granted to media, sources and messages, but also about their effects on behavior and opinion.

In the library and information sciences (LIS), the seeds of research on credibility were planted by studies focusing on information behavior and more specifically on relevance judgements made by users of information-seeking systems. During the 1990s and 2000s, studies proved that in order to choose documents and information in the course of research, individuals used topicality as well as a great variety of other criteria as well, including credibility and reliability (Barry and Schamber, 1998; Maglaughlin and Sonnenwald, 2002). The enormous growth of Web use has led to a proliferation of studies on credibility. Individuals are faced with an information regime with fewer editorial control mechanisms compared to traditional print (Rieh, 2010). This subject brings together the fields of LIS, media studies, social and cognitive psychology and human-computer interactions, even though theoretical and methodological options are dissimilar. Despite the diversity of studies, credibility remains difficult to define. In Rieh’s words: “credibility has been defined along with dozens of other related concepts such as believability, trustworthiness, fairness, accuracy, trustfulness, factuality, completeness, precision, freedom from bias, objectivity, depth, and informativeness” [3]. To cope with this confusion, it seems best to return to a simpler definition. Indeed, the Oxford dictionaries define credibility as “the quality of being trusted and believed in” [4]. Furthermore, since Hovland, et al. (1953), research has converged on two attributes used to assess the credibility of a source or of information (Fogg, et al., 2003; Rieh, 2010; Choi and Stvilia, 2015). On the one hand, expertise, linked to the acknowledged skills of the source such as its status, qualification or experience; on the other hand, its trustworthiness. It is linked to the moral qualities seen in a given source, whether it is well-intentioned, truthful and unbiased.

Epistemic trust

We will discuss only one type of trust that is relevant when seeking and using information, namely epistemic trust. We are concerned with epistemic trust when we have to believe others to secure information (Origgi, 2004). This kind of trust is characteristic of knowledge transfer — such as information seeking — involving a knowledge discrepancy between a knowledge-seeking subject and a potential source of knowledge.

Trust is involved in situations where individuals feel uncertainty and vulnerability (Kelton, et al., 2008). These two feelings are characteristic of an information-seeking process. Indeed, this process is triggered by the realization of a need for information, which in turn comes from the desire to reduce uncertainty over a problem. In Kuhlthau’s (1991) information search process model, uncertainty is linked to the first stages of research (initiation, exploration). Vulnerability springs from the potential damage that can be caused by utilizing inaccurate information, leading to inappropriate decisions. On the Web, feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability are increased due to an absence of universal norms assuring the quality of available information. Hence trust can diminish uncertainty and vulnerability.

In determining trust, credibility appears as an important factor. A cognitive approach to trust assumes that the subject undertakes a rational assessment of an epistemic stance (Origgi, 2008). It is then possible to determine its capacity to “tell the truth” (its expertise) and its intentions to do so (intellectual honesty, loyalty, respect of their duties and responsibilities). Thus there are several dimensions that determine the credibility of a source, an epistemic norm as well as a moral one.

The authority of a source

Wilson (1983) defined the notion of cognitive authority as an individual accepting and acknowledging as appropriate the intellectual authority of a source in order to secure new knowledge. Not only are these sources deemed credible, they are granted a higher level of expertise. Thus, a cognitive authority has a form of reflexivity in a given field of knowledge, which explains that it is held as a favored source.

Wilson’s approach should be examined in light of Bourdieu (1977) who proposed an analysis of the social mechanisms involved in granting authority to speech. According to Bourdieu, it comes from the author, who is considered a “spokesperson” in the sense that his authority was delegated to him by an institution. As an illustration to this delegation, Bourdieu uses the image of the skeptron, a scepter imperatively required to speak in public in ancient Greece. This thesis shows the benefits of emphasizing the power given by institutions to those social actors representing them. It is associated with the idea that there is a hierarchy of sources and speech depending on their legitimacy, which itself comes from being part of an institution. In that regard, Bourdieu’s analysis is not all that dissimilar from that of Wilson, both demonstrating the influence of institutions in the construction of cognitive authority.



Previous models

Several models have been developed to describe credibility assessment on the Web. In the prominence-interpretation theory (Tseng and Fogg, 1999; Fogg, 2003; Fogg, et al., 2003), credibility assessments occur when users notice an element of a Web site (prominence) and use it to infer the credibility of the site (interpretation). These assessments are frequently dependent on the design of a given site (layout, typography, use of white space, images, color schemes), followed by the structure of information (how information is organized, how easy it is to navigate). Wathen and Burkell (2002) applied Fogg’s conclusions an other findings to create a model of the credibility of a Web site. In this model, assessment is reached in several consecutive steps. The first assessment is based on superficial characteristics of a given site — appearance, interface design and organization. The next assessment treats the source — expertise, competence, trustworthiness and credentials — as well as message accuracy, currency and utility. If this assessment is favorable, a more in-depth analysis is made of the content of the site. If, in those steps, negative assessments prevail, the user leaves the site to seek alternative sources of information. For Jessen and Jørgensen (2012), the need to produce a new model was justified by the continued evolution of the online environment. Users of the social web —social networks, blogs and wikis — do not necessarily have the usual criteria — expertise and trustworthiness — to determine credibility. Alternatively, there is a sort of social validation in the form of assessments by other users — likes on Facebook, followers and shares on Twitter — as well as a more traditional signal in the form of affiliation with a given institution or organization.

Other models have focused on the notion of epistemic trust. Kelton, et al.’s (2008) model emphasized the central role of trust, considered as a key mediating variable between information quality and use. Some characteristics include positive intentions, ethical qualities and predictability, that is, its capacity to meet expectations created by a given source’s previous behavior. Trust is also built on other factors, such as the context in which trust is embedded. The propensity to trust is a purely psychological attribute. The 3S-model — semantics, surface, and source features of information — was based on empirical studies (Lucassen and Schraagen, 2012; 2011). Depending on circumstances, an information seeker can either use his domain expertise to assess the semantic contents of a document as well as information skills to take identify signs of credibility, coupled with past experiences with a given source. Overall, trust in information is influenced by trust in a source; trust in a source is influenced by trust in a medium; and trust in a medium is influenced by a propensity to trust.

The concept of authority was used to develop models and empirical studies assessing the truth value of information. Rieh (2002) used Wilson’s concepts of cognitive authority to generate a model on the selection of information on the Web. Much like Wathen and Burkell’s (2002) model, assessment of an online document occurs in several steps. Unlike it, the assessment process starts before a given Web document is read. This type of judgement is called “predictive”, illustrating the expectations of a given user. In other words, users develop representations of sources in advance. Evaluations are made when the contents of a given site is being examined. If assessments align, content from a site will be utilized. Previous knowledge of online sources influences the nature of predictive decisions. Information seekers rely first and foremost on their own experience with documents to trust sources of information. They also take into consideration recommendations or opinions from colleagues, friends, as well as information from other sources, even magazines, articles or commercials. Authority has been used to identify influential sources for social groups, including the foundations used to construct this authority (Rieh, 2002; McKenzie, 2003; Savolainen, 2007) or to question it. For instance, Neal and McKenzie (2011) studied how bloggers debated and refuted the authority of medical sources regarding health issues.



A theoretical and historical problem

Concepts of credibility, epistemic trust and authority have given rise to multiple models in library and information sciences. However, we are confronted with a theoretical problem. The ambiguities of these concepts do not help to develop a unified approach. We develop this point and then address a historical problem: how to understand questions of credibility, trust and authority posed by sources such as Wikipedia.

Ambiguity and confusion over concepts

Credibility, trust and authority all refer to a particular dimension in approaching information: believing in its truth-value. Thus these concepts refer to what could be called epistemic judgments. They seem to overlap while remaining distinct and, as a consequence, are not interchangeable. The semantic relationships between these factors are not clearly established. In some studies, these different notions are treated almost synonymously. For instance, Watson (2014) elected to equate credibility, reliability, accuracy, authority, quality of information and trust in information. Tsen and Fogg (1999) noted the semantic problems of credibility and chose to use of credibility as a synonym of believability while trust equated to dependability. For Menchen-Trevino and Hargittai (2011), credibility was a means to operationalize trust. For Rieh (2002), trust was a means to engage cognitive authority.

Some models of credibility link it with authority (Wathen and Burkell, 2002; Jensen and Jørgensen, 2012) but not explicitly with trust. In the 3-S model, the concept of trust incorporates credibility (Lucassen and Schraagen, 2011). For Kelton, et al. (2008), credibility was too narrow to represent trust. In these models, the authority of the sources was seldom taken into consideration. In the prominence-interpretation theory, credibility was the focus (Fogg, 2003).

Our literature review confirmed the semantic ambiguity of credibility, trust and authority. Empirical and theoretical literature does not offer definitions or clear models linking these concepts, which we see as essential. Authority of a source derives from its attachment to specific knowledge-generating institutions or organizations. Its power of influence is considered legitimate because of this association. We use this term to refer to legitimate social groups and institutions that have a mission to produce knowledge as well as to disseminate it. This general term includes a variety of institutions, such as scholarly organizations, each with their specificities and complex relationships with one another. This kind of authority generates trust in a source. At first glance, however, Wikipedia does not appear to fit into this framework.

The case of Wikipedia

Traditionally, prestigious encyclopedias develop their reputations from their editors and contributors, in turn ensuring authority (Rasoamampianina, 2012). These encyclopedias are often associated with academia — scholarly societies and universities — linking their reputations (Sundin and Haider, 2013, Yeo, 2001). When Wikipedia started in 2001, it had neither the support of academic institutions nor enormous contributions from well-known experts. Wikipedia relies on volunteers and a process of open collaboration (Forte and Lampe, 2013). Thus Wikipedia does not follow the usual norms of generating a traditional encyclopedia. Yet Wikipedia has become one of the most popular Web sites in the world in terms of traffic and sheer global consumption.

Studies emphasize that Wikipedia has become part of global informational practices, in part due to its dynamic nature and rapid adaptability (Generous, et al., 2014; Mestyán, et al., 2013). Young people frequently turn to Wikipedia (Flanagin and Metzger, 2010; Selwyn and Gorard, 2016), especially in conjunction with Google (Head and Eisenberg, 2010; Colón-Aguirre and Fleming-May, 2012). A majority of Wikipedia’s users judge their experiences as positive (Lim, 2009; Head and Eisenberg, 2010), including their notions of accuracy (Sahut, 2014a). These factors contribute to Wikipedia’s increased authority as a reliable source. However, in spite of these appraisals, trust in Wikipedia remains average (Julien and Barker, 2009; Watson, 2014; Georgas, 2014). How can we explain this paradox?

Studies have been made to understand the degree of trust in Wikipedia and other traditional encyclopedias, such as Encyclopedia Britannica (Kubiszewski, et al., 2011; Flanagin and Metzger, 2011). According to this research, content in Wikipedia was deemed less credible than content in Britannica. It was not due to the fundamental quality of specific articles; instead users were influenced by the reputation of the source. Britannica benefits from its long history — the first edition was published between 1768 and 1771 — and recognition of its contributors, including over 100 Nobel Prize recipients. Wikipedia has been the object of criticism from academics (Reagle, 2010), a sign of mediocrity triumphing over expertise (Keen, 2007). Wikipedia’s reputation among some academics led to some instructors banning its use by students (Francke and Sundin, 2012; Knight and Pryke, 2012; Purcell, et al., 2013). Students in turn abstain from quoting Wikipedia content as a source in their assignments (Lim, 2009; Head and Eisenberg, 2010; Watson, 2014).

Therefore Wikipedia needs to demonstrate its credibility. For Jessen and Jørgensen (2012), credibility in Wikipedia comes from a process of collective validation; if content remains in place in the virtual pages of Wikipedia, it was accepted by other contributors and editors. Credibility by multiplicity is a specific way of asserting that collaborative efforts from multiple authors and editors generates accurate information (Francke, et al., 2011). This belief is deeply embedded in Wikipedia’s community, but it is not the only one. In the English (Forte and Bruckman, 2005) and Swedish (Sundin, 2011) versions of Wikipedia, the importance of “verifiability” and “citing sources” was noted. Linking a statement to a source is a way to certify its credibility. In a way, referencing became the skeptron that legitimizes an encyclopedic statement, making referencing an important part of the activity of contributors. Analyzing debates in the French Wikipedia community permits a better understanding of why these referencing rules were established (Sahut, 2014b), adopted between 2005 and 2007 in the face of much criticism of the content of Wikipedia. Specifically, the Seigenthaler case illustrated the fragility of Wikipedia (Reagle, 2010) and its potential for manipulation of content. In this specific example, the American journalist John Seigenthaler (1927–2014) discovered in his page in the English-speaking Wikipedia that he had been saw he was allegedly involved in the assassinations of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Seigenthaler denounced Wikipedia’s editorial process pointedly in an article in USA Today. Seigenthaler’s provided fuel to historians, philosophers and other scholars over the epistemic dangers of Wikipedia. In turn, Wikipedia’s community realized the limits of credibility solely dependent on internal collective validation. Referencing evolved as a process to compensate for uncertainties inherent in open editing, anonymity and a lack of a centralized and expert body validating content (Sahut, 2014b).



A model linking authority, trust and credibility

As noted earlier, the relationships between credibility, epistemic trust and cognitive authority have not been clearly established. One might argue that the authority is driven by not only those sources affiliated with established institutions. Wikipedia is emblematic of this phenomenon. Thus, we propose a new model linking credibility, epistemic trust and authority of a source.

Definition and semantic links between credibility, trust and authority

In continuity with earlier studies, we propose definitions for the concepts of credibility, epistemic trust and authority.

  • Studies on the credibility of a source can be found frequently in scholarly studies. However, these judgments are ultimately based on the information itself; analysis of a source can only reinforce this judgment. We propose to define credibility as a characteristic granted to information depending on its truth-value.

  • Trust characterizes a relationship in which a recipient (a reader) recognizes that a source is able to provide credible information.

  • The authority of a source corresponds to acknowledging and accepting its power to influence, that is to say, readers accept that sources can modify opinions, knowledge and decisions. It guarantees trust, and indicates that a source is favored in a field of knowledge, when there are several available sources. The authority of a source is guaranteed by social mechanisms.

In order to supplement these definitions, we specify the relationships between these different concepts from the point of view of the user.

  • The credibility of information is often inferred from trust in a source.

  • A source that regularly produces credible information is likely to favor the creation of trust with the user.

  • A source that acquires the trust of an important number of people generates greater authority.

We will set apart two possible origins of authority for a source: the downward process of recognizing authority and the upward process of constructing authority.

With this downward process, knowledge institutions confer authority to a source. This authority ensures trust, which in turn provides credibility. As Bourdieu (1977) suggests with the image of the skeptron, the social status of a source is recognizable from features within and about a given document — titles of authors, institutional affiliations, editorial context. When users recognize authority, it in turn supports a relationship of trust and reinforces credibility (Metzger, et al., 2010).

Building authority can also be an upward process. We estimated that the repeated experience of credibility in a given source favors the creation of trust. If trust is continually reinforced, it leads to social recognition. The upward authority process can thereby take place on an expansive social scale.

Authority, trust and credibility (ATC) model

We propose to integrate these concepts and their links in a communication model. We estimate that they can all be used to describe communication between an information producer — an author or designer — and a receiver, seeker, selector and processor of information — a reader or user.

We adapt, in this new model, Sperber and Wilson’s (1986) relevance theory to documentary communication. According to Sperber and Wilson, most human communication, both verbal and non-verbal, is the expression and recognition of intentions. Dialogue works on two levels: an informative intention, to inform the recipients of something as well as a communicative intent. “According to this theory, [...] a communicator provides evidence of her intention to convey a certain meaning, which is inferred by the audience on the basis of the evidence provided” [5]. A recipient fills an information gap, based on assumptions about a given audience. When designing a document, the author actualizes an intention to inform by targeting a specific readership. This targeting is based on inference.

Truth, in our model, can be actualized on two levels (Figure 1):

  • by providing credibility to specific information;

  • by displaying signals in a source that establish or encourage trust for a targeted readership. These signs demonstrate expertise, with references to qualifications and experience in a given relevant domain of knowledge. In the context of documentary communication, a halo effect of trust is accumulated by social actors and institutions in validation, such as being quoted or cited by others. These clues contribute to what we call the downward process of authority. Being associated with socially recognized institutions ensures trust in a source and credibility of information.

Let’s now switch to the perspective of the reader. We will abstain from participating in debates over the processes of reading, interpreting or receiving messages. We will merely postulate that in the context of seeking information, a reader has some margin of interpretation in assessing a source. Referring to Sperber and Wilson’s model, a reader assesses the credibility of information by identifying the intentions and expertise of source (Figure 1). These evaluative activities can occur on two levels:

  • Evaluation can be on the level of information itself. A reader evaluates information using their own knowledge to assess its value and whether it matches their pre-existing beliefs and opinions;

  • Evaluation can be on the level of a source. In order to trust a source, a reader depends on signs that symbolize social qualifications and expertise, leading to trustworthiness.

Through these processes, a reader infers intentions to “tell the truth”.


Authority, trust and credibility (ATC) model
Figure 1: The Authority, Trust and Credibility (ATC) Model. With the downward process, knowledge institutions confer authority to a source, this authority ensures trust, which ensures the credibility of the information. With the upward process, the credibility of the information builds trust, which builds the authority of the source.


Application of ATC model to Wikipedia

The ATC model can help to understand authority, trust and credibility associated with Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not linked to a scholarly institution or organization specifically. Trust in Wikipedia is built by an upward authority process. Positive experiences lead to a certain degree of trust. However, trust in a collaborative encyclopedia is not optimal to be diplomatic, in contrast with Wikipedia’s frequency use on a global scale.

Returning to the ATC model, we can say that there are factors at work in the opposite direction. The mostly positive experiences in the use of Wikipedia’s content contrasts with its negative reputation among some academics. Hence, we could say that the upward process of building up authority is somewhat hindered by its reputation among some scholars (Figure 2).


Authority, trust and credibility in Wikipedia
Figure 2: Wikipedia authority, trust and credibility. The educational institution can spread a bad reputation on Wikipedia, which decreases its authority, has a negative influence on its trust, which negatively influences the credibility of the information. Conversely, a positive experience of credibility of Wikipedia information increases readers’ trust.


Let us focus on the citation of sources in Wikipedia (Figure 3). The ATC model can help to understand why this practice has become central to Wikipedians. Citations provide credibility and encourage trust, linking content to existing knowledge sources and institutions. In relation to the ATC model, citations provide for Wikipedia an external authority.

Citations generate trust and thereby allow Wikipedia to gain authority. However, in some circles, trust in Wikipedia is not very high, which might be explained in the process of implementation. A number of Wikipedia’s articles do not have references. Contributors to Wikipedia are aware of this situation since many “unreferenced” and “citation needed” annotations have been added. In March 2016 we counted 87,173 “citation needed” tags in the French-speaking Wikipedia as well as 48,469 articles noted as “unreferenced”. Where citations exist, they can be quite different; some are scholarly, but others are diverse organizations as well as the social Web (Luyt and Tan, 2010; Ford, et al., 2013). This discrepancy puts limits on importing authority into content in Wikipedia (Figure 3).


Referencing as importing authority to enhance trust and credibility
Figure 3: Referencing as importing authority to enhance trust and credibility. The use of references from knowledge institutions is a means to increase trust and credibility by importing the authority of knowledge institutions.





Models are inherently reductive in that they fail to incorporate all variables that can potentially influence a specific process. However, it seems important to discuss whether our model is compatible with earlier research on digital credibility and trust.

While authority was traditionally seen as a process intrinsically linked to knowledge institutions, the ATC model highlights the dynamic process of constructing authority. Positive experiences and a favorable reputation among some users are two key factors that enable WIkipedia to build trust. These factors are important in assessing the credibility of information (Hilligoss and Rieh, 2008; Metzger, et al., 2010). They are both at the origin of heuristic processes, that is, rules that minimize cognitive effort and time.

Past experiences with a given source eventually generate trust (Rieh, 2002; Kelton, et al., 2008; Hilligoss and Rieh, 2008). These experience test expertise and honesty, providing notions of credibility.

The reputation of a source is a social phenomenon that influences epistemic trust (Hilligoss and Rieh, 2008; Metzger, et al., 2010). Vehicles of reputation can be either informal or formal (Origgi, 2015). Informal vehicles are made up of socio-cognitive phenomena linked to the spread of information, such as a teacher recommending a source to students. Formal vehicles are information rating or ranking systems created by online algorithms. These technologies aggregate the opinions of users, translating them into an index. These tools can be found on some Web sites, forums and social networks (Westerman, et al., 2012). These indexes in turn determine credibility, known also as tabulated credibility (Flanagin and Metzger, 2008) or aggregated trustworthiness (Jessen and Jørgensen, 2012). They are indicators of an upward process of building authority.

More detailed studies are needed to determine the extent to which the ATC model could be applied to different digital media. Secondly, we also need to evaluate the respective weight of sources and reputational experiences. These factors combine to create an upward dynamic for developing authority, but also lead to tension, as shown in Wikipedia.

In order to complement the approach proposed by the ATC model, it seems necessary to note that the design of a given site is an important factor of trust (Fogg, et al., 2003; Robins and Holmes, 2008; Watson, 2014). Users often rely on visual aesthetics and on the appropriateness of design (Choi and Stvilia, 2015). This seems compatible with our model if these elements are considered as possible characteristics that create a feeling of trust, which ultimately generates credibility.

The social and contextual dimensions of phenomena linked with trust, authority and credibility should also be taken into account. Authority granted to a source fluctuates, depending on variations in the reputations of communities and institutions (Wilson, 1983; McKenzie, 2003). Group-based credibility depends on opinions about trust over a source circulating in a borader community (Metzger, et al., 2010). Moreover, trust depends on a given topic at hand. Even for sources that deal with a variety of subjects, trust depends on whether the context of research is recreational or scholarly (Sahut, 2014a). Much remains to be investigated to identify how the process of building authority depending on social backgrounds and on how hierarchies of sources can be created, depending on the nature of information seeking.




We initially noted that credibility, trust and authority were frequently used to describe epistemic phenomena. We noted that it seemed difficult to define credibility, trust and authority and to determine semantic relationships between these terms. This observation led us to propose both a model and definitions that link these concepts.

This in turn led us to identify a downward process of acknowledging authority. Following that logic, a reader recognizes the characteristics of authority embedded in a given document. This leads a reader to trust a source as authority generates credibility.

We discerned an upward process of building authority. Spreading information that is deemed credible contributes to establishing trust in a source even if it is not ostensibly part of a scholarly institution or organization. The authority of a source is as great as the number of individuals who trust a given source and the strength of these relationships. Authority is built into communities of different natures and sizes. Experiences related to a source play a crucial role, tied to reputation. Shared opinions in a community over the reliability of a source have an effect on authority.

This model represents the redistribution of cognitive authority. We used the example of Wikipedia which, despite a very large readership, is not universally recognized as an authority at the same level of traditional encyclopedias. Among some audiences, the upward process of constructing authority was hindered by negative opinions on the overall reliability of Wikipedia. Changes were made to enhance the credibility of content by citations and references. In practice, this process of importing authority is hindered by uneven referencing and in the authority of some sources used as citations.

The upward and downward processes work on different timescales. Downward authority guarantees almost instantaneous trust and credibility, in conjunction with distinctive signals known and recognized by readers. Authority is build over time. A source is likely to capitalize on trust generated through reputation. Thus it seems important to study the future evolution of trust and reputation in Wikipedia in order to better analyze the possible evolution of cognitive authority. End of article


About the authors

Gilles Sahut is a teacher of documentation at the Toulouse School of Education (France) and researcher at the Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherches Appliquées en Sciences Sociales (University of Toulouse). He obtained his Ph.D. in information and communication sciences in 2015. His work is mainly focused the credibility and authority of Wikipedia and media and information Literacy.
Direct comments to: gilles [dot] sahut [at] univ-tlse2 [dot] fr

André Tricot is professor of psychology at the Toulouse School of Education (France) and member of the Work and Cognition Lab (French national council for research). In 2014–15, he was the head of the group that design grades 1, 2 and 3 new curricula for primary schools in France. He was also a visiting professor at the School of Education, University of New South Wales, Sydney. He obtained his Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Aix-Marseille Université in 1995. André’s work is mainly focused the study of human learning and information seeking in digital documents.
E-mail: Andre [dot] Tricot [at] univ-tlse2 [dot] fr



The authors would like to thank Michael Buckland for his comments on earlier version of this paper.



1. Aristotle, Topics, translated by W. A. Pickard, at, accessed 4 October 2017.

2. It is obvious that the literature about credibility, trust and authority in the philosophy of science as well as in library and information science is related. For example, what we call the “downward model” (where authority ensures trust, that ensure credibility) has been challenged (Sztompka, 2007) in very close ways. We will use different works from different academic disciplines to discuss our three concepts and their relationships.

3. Rieh, 2010, p. 1,337.

4. See, accessed 4 October 2017.

5. Sperber and Wilson, 1986, p. 249.



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Editorial history

Received 12 November 2016; revised 26 February 2017; revised 27 September 2017; revised 3 October 2017; accepted 3 October 2017.

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This paper is in the Public Domain.

Wikipedia: An opportunity to rethink the links between sources’ credibility, trust, and authority
by Gilles Sahut and André Tricot.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 11 - 6 November 2017

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