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Online Wikipedia is not Britannica - but it's close

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 2006



Spam and spyware. Blogs and podcasts. Words that describe things related to the Internet keep entering the vocabulary of ordinary people. Will 2006 be the year that the "wiki" joins them?

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A wiki is a website that allows anyone who visits to quickly add, delete, or edit its contents. (According to the Wikipedia.org website, it comes from the Hawaiian word wikiwiki, meaning "quickly." It also could stand for "What I Know Is....")

Last year ended with a burst of publicity - first negative and then positive - for Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that has become by far the most prominent example of a wiki in action.

The lofty goal of Wikipedia, whose contributors and editors are volunteers, is to provide a free encyclopedia to everyone on the planet, written in their native language. The website currently claims about 2.5 million entries (nearly 1 million in English), on almost every subject imaginable in more than 100 languages. Wikipedia ranked as the 26th busiest site on the Internet Jan. 1, and the 34th busiest over the last three months, according to alexa.com, a Web-search subsidiary of Amazon.com. And its page views and site traffic have continued to climb in the month since the controversy began.

In 2005, several individuals, most prominently John Seigenthaler Sr., a former official in the Kennedy administration and a retired journalist, charged that Wikipedia contained inaccurate information about them. In a November article in USA Today, Mr. Seigenthaler complained that from May to October, his biography on Wikipedia stated that "he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven."

The assertion, which was false, proved to be the work of a prankster and showed how inaccuracies could be written into Wikipedia and persist for long periods despite the best efforts of the volunteer editors. That led to some alarming press coverage, especially on TV ("How bad is Wikipedia? Film at 11."), says Jimmy Wales, who cofounded Wikipedia in 2001 and is president of the nonprofit Wikipedia Foundation.

But in mid-December, Wikipedia won an endorsement from a prominent source. An analysis conducted by the journal Nature showed that, on scientific topics, an average Wikipedia article had about four "inaccuracies" (factual errors, critical omissions, or misleading statements), compared with about three inaccuracies per article in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The similarity in quality seemed remarkable given that Wikipedia is thought to be written by thousands of "amateur" enthusiasts and Britannica by carefully chosen - and paid - experts.

"It was good," Mr. Wales says. "It showed people Wikipedia isn't as good as Britannica, but it's pretty good. And we hope it's getting better all the time. That's our goal."

While it might seem that Wikipedia would be anti-elitist, welcoming contributions from anyone, Wales begs to differ. "I think Wikipedia is extremely elitist. We're a bunch of snobs. But it's an elitism of productive work, it's an elitism of results," he says in a phone call from the foundation's home in St. Petersburg, Fla. "We don't vet people on their credentials [before they can contribute], so maybe we're anti-credentialist." Instead, contributors earn reputations within Wikipedia based on the quality of their work, he says. "There's a real passion for getting it right."

In response to the Seigenthaler flap, Wikipedia now requires new contributors to register before they can create a new article. "We put a little speed bump in there," Wales says. "It didn't represent any kind of major policy shift." It's also considering further steps such as designating some areas of the Wikipedia as "finished work" and closing them off to editing.

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