Aiming to create a more authoritative source of information than Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that allows anyone to post or edit subject-matter entries, Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger is getting ready to launch a new collaborative web site. Called Citizendium, the new site will require posters to register their names and has tapped subject-matter experts to serve as content editors.
Since its launch in 2001, Wikipedia has grown into a clearinghouse of free information on topics ranging from medieval art to nanotechnology. But critics say its strength–the fact that anyone can post or edit a listing–is also its greatest weakness.
Unlike content published in newspapers, books, and other traditional media, Wikipedia material can be submitted or edited by just about anyone, regardless of his or her level of subject-matter expertise–and often without having to volunteer any identifying information.
This lack of accountability recently prompted the history department at Vermont’s Middlebury College to adopt a policy stating that it’s OK to consult the popular online encyclopedia–but students can’t cite it as an authoritative source.
Wikipedia is an ideal place to start research but an unacceptable way to end it, explained history professor Neil Waters.
It is this lack of accountability that led Sanger to create Citizendium.
“I think there is a need for a more reliable and free [online] encyclopedia,” he said. “If we can create a more reliable and free encyclopedia, particularly if we adopt a different system than Wikipedia’s, then we should.”
Citizendium works much like Wikipedia in many ways. Both are considered wikis, which are collaborative web sites that represent the ongoing, collective work of many authors. Similar to a blog in structure and logic, a wiki allows anyone to edit, delete, or modify content that has been placed on the site–including the work of previous authors–using only a browser interface.
The central differences between Wikipedia and Citizendium are “more cultural than operational,” said Sanger. For example, unlike Wikipedia, which allows any anonymous user to edit an entry, Citizendium will require users to register their names before editing any information.
“We’re using an honor system to do this, and in the occasional case where we find someone is using a pseudonym, we’ll ban that account,” Sanger said.
There will be exceptions to this rule, though. Registered pseudonyms will be allowed if there is a clear and compelling reason for them. Sanger said political dissidents, certain scientists, and those who are not allowed to author articles under an agreement with their employer, for instance, may be allowed to use a pseudonym.
To separate itself from Wikipedia even further, Citizendium has invited subject-matter experts to act as content editors within their field of study. The editors can both create and edit articles, but they also will be responsible for approving articles associated with their field.
Editors are split into two different categories–those from traditionally academic fields and those from professional fields. Editors in the traditionally academic fields are required to have the same qualifications you’d need to get a tenured position as a professor. For those in the professional fields, a degree for entry into the profession is required, as well as three-plus years of professional experience.
Articles will not need to be approved by an editor before being included on the web site, however. Much like on Wikipedia, unapproved articles will be accessible alongside approved ones and could be posted for a long time before being reviewed by an editor. Articles that have been approved or are about to be approved by an editor will be marked “CZ Live,” and Sanger said more than 1,000 such articles already exist–with more being so marked every day.
Sanger said authors and editors have been coming to the web site on their own for the most part. Formal recruiting has just begun in recent weeks, but only in a low-key fashion.
“We’re going to be doing some more proactive recruitment,” he said. “We intend to post [calls for participation] to mailing lists. A lot of the people who just like to talk online are also the sorts of people who like to participate in collaborative projects online. It’s a pretty natural fit.”
The Citizendium project is funded through grants from the Revson Foundation and Craig Caviezel, a Salt Lake City philanthropist. While the grants are large enough to launch a start-up, nonprofit organization such as Citizendium, Sanger notes that this money eventually will run out. He says he’ll look to raise funds once the site goes public later this spring.
Sanger expects it will take some time before Citizendium is consulted as a primary source. But once that happens, “I very much doubt that any school or college will ever want to stop people from using Citizendium as a source, at least the approved articles,” he said. “We don’t make any guarantees about our unapproved articles, though.”