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Wikipedia struggles between credibility and openness

26 August 2009

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In a move to gain credibility, investors are breaking away from the earlier model of unrestricted entries to make the site more accountable. Illegitimate changes in pages of the online encyclopedia have raised the need for tighter editorial policies.

New York: Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia that has increasingly drawn some decidedly juvenile pranks, is looking to impose more discipline with new restrictions on the editing of articles.

The latest changes come as Wikipedia continues trying to balance a need for credibility and a desire for openness.

While anyone can still edit entries, the site is testing pages that require changes to be approved by an experienced Wikipedia editor before they show up.

If the site’s users respond well to the test run, the new restrictions will apply to all entries for living people in the next few weeks.

Blocking illegitimate editing

The idea is to block the kind of high-profile vandalism that has marred some pages.

In one of the most recent embarrassments, Democratic Sens. Robert Byrd and Edward Kennedy were prematurely declared dead by rogue editors.

Still, Wikipedia risks discouraging legitimate editing if restrictions on changes or additions become too burdensome, such that articles won’t get better or keep up with events. That may be especially true on more obscure pages with fewer active volunteers to approve edits in a timely way.

Aware of the risks, Wikipedia has set the criteria for “experienced editor” status relatively low.

Users who are registered for a few days can give changes the OK, said Jay Walsh, a spokesman for the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the site.

Becoming credible

A more uniform system for filtering changes on Wikipedia represents a step back from the site’s original philosophy, which called for harnessing the collective knowledge of volunteer editors without any major restrictions.

"We haven’t closed the drawbridge. People can still get in. But it keeps going up and up and up"

But it is not the first time Wikipedia has attached some strings.

The same flagging process, for example, has been imposed on all entries in the German-language Wikipedia for more than a year.

On the English site, too, high-profile pages that are likely to be defaced, such as Michael Jackson’s, have been tightly restricted.

Some believe Wikipedia must continue tightening editing policies if it wants to gain credibility.


“I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at the Santa Clara University School of Law.

Goldman envisions a future Wikipedia curated by a relatively small group of dedicated editors. Under the current model, he said, there simply aren’t enough volunteers to catch all errors.

“My hope is that Wikipedia still exists and is still considered a useful site,” Goldman said. “But it will be at that point a very tightly controlled site.

It won’t have that veneer of a site that anyone can contribute to. They haven’t closed the drawbridge. People can still get in. But it keeps going up and up and up.”

Separately, the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment group started by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, said Tuesday it is donating $2 million to the Wikimedia Foundation.

It follows last week’s announcement of a $500,000 grant from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to make its software more user friendly and to develop training materials to engage new potential volunteer editors.

Source : Livemint

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