Friday, April 20, 2007

Consider the source

Consider the source
As a matter of fact, Wikipedia isn't always right on LI
April 17, 2007

There's a new kid in Online Encyclopedia Town.

Citizendium is thefirst serious contender to the throne currently occupied by Wikipedia, the historic site that offers a knowledge base of just about anything and everything.

Founded by Larry Sanger, who was instrumental in the construction of Wikipedia, the new service will seek to improve on the Wiki model by requiring contributors to sign their work, add expert editorial supervision and ensure the service's credibility.

Credibility, in fact, is the issue at the nub of the Wiki open-source, free-form phenomenon. As one observer pointed out in an ongoing blog rant on Wiki, "The great advantage of the Wikipedia, which allows everybody to add/edit everything, is also its greatest disadvantage."

Wikipedia has been at the center of a storm of controversy for some months and a subject of debate among journalists, academics and scholars about Wiki's place in serious research. Editors at The New York Times have warned reporters about trusting information contained in Wikipedia; at Newsday, reporters are expected to double-check on information they may glean from Wikipedia.

Supporters of the service admit it's not foolproof, it can be subject to vandalism and it's not necessarily the last word. When Middlebury College in Vermont this month restricted the use of Wikipedia citations, Wiki founder Jimmy Wales concurred, saying, "Students shouldn't be citing encyclopedias. I would hope they wouldn't be citing Encyclopedia Britannica, either."

The most sensational mistake to lie at the feet of Wikipedia was an article suggesting that John Seigenthaler Sr., a former aide to Robert Kennedy, was involved in the assassinations of both Robert and John F. Kennedy. The entry was eventually corrected by the subject, but that didn't stop an aggrieved Seigenthaler from airing his displeasure with the site in a piece in USA Today. It later was learned that the item was posted as a practical joke.

The contentions have forced Wales to implement a policy change for the site, requiring credential verifications in some cases; in other cases, contributors can remain anonymous. But he said they should only be allowed to cite some professional expertise in a subject if those credentials have been verified. More than 1.7 million articles are currently archived in Wikipedia so far, and that's just the English-language entries.

By comparison, Citizendium, the "citizens' compendium of everything," as the founders call it, is in baby-step mode, with 1,330 entries compiled as of Friday.

Sanger's guide for contributors emphasizes that authors "take responsibility for our own work, and we like to think we're a lot morecivil than your average Internet community. If you didn't take our real names policy seriously ... we will permanently ban you from the Web site." "Citizens" will also berequired to maintain biographies on their user pages.

Because we're paid in part to be skeptical, we decided to compare the information provided in Wikipedia on five topics close to the hearts of most Long Islanders with research done by the paper. For a look at how right (or wrong) Wiki got the data, click on the gallery at right.

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